In 2012 I had a couple of students from Germany visit for some cave training. We spend a week together going from Cavern through Apprentice Cave. They had initially wanted to complete through Basic/Intro Cave and do a couple of days of guided dives but after discussing their overhead diving options back in Germany we decided it would be best to bring them to Apprentice level so as to allow them more options at home without being tempted to break their training limitations. Here is an article one of my students wrote and was able to get published in a popular German magazine.
Here is an English translation of the article.
Cave Diver “from zero to (almost) hero…”
Cave Diver Training – made in Florida
Text & pictures:: Oliver J. Albrecht
Eventually, every scuba diver will stumble over them on Youtube, Vimeo or other platforms – fascinating videos portraying the pinnacle of diving – cave diving. Crystal clear water, bizarre rock formations, unbelievable colors and lighting effects and mysterious labyrinths and tunnels.
My dive buddy Stephan and I were no exception and in the beginning of 2012 we began to study the subject of cave diving, and quickly developed an irrepressible desire to see “the caves”with our own eyes.
But how were we to do this properly, what is the right and safe way, how were we to start? We researched and found out quickly what type of courses we needed to complete. We were also aware of the exact qualifications we needed to fulfill as we both had already gotten a taste of the world of technical diving. We needed very good in-water skills and experience in diving. My buddy Stephan had logged almost 200 dives and was just about to complete his Advanced Nitrox course, after having previously finished his Open Water and Advanced Open Water certifications. During the most recent course his instructor enabled him to dive in a tec-compliant and horizontal posture, plus helped him elevate his finning techniques to a new level.
In comparison to Stephan I was, despite more than 400 dives, “only” certified as a divemaster, what we call a “sporty” in Germany. However I had been lucky for having had a mentor and friend for two years, who helped me fine-tune my
equipment, trim and skills. So we were sure that we would both meet the basic requirements for the cave courses. But now we needed to clarify further and significant questions. Where should we take the courses and how should we choose
the right instructor for us?
Those who research the subject of cave diving, particularly its history, will quickly be drawn to the freshwater springs of northern Florida, where ultimately in the 1960s “Cave Diving” had found one of his origins. Even today, the springs between High Springs in the south and Marianna in the northwest of the state of Florida are an absolute mecca for avid cave divers. In addition to the stunning cave systems, of which most are easy to access and comparably affordable to dive, the excellent infrastructure of the country is highly beneficial.
We knew it had to be Florida, because the arguments for cave diving there are unbeatable:
• Florida offers, apart from Mexico, the world’s largest selection of top instructors.
• The infrastructure is perfect, traveling from Europe is no problem and the prices for accommodation are manageable.
• In view of the competitive situation among instructors, the prices for diving courses are very reasonable.
Choosing the right instructor
We began the search for “our” instructor. The cave systems in “cave country” in northern Florida are scattered over a radius of approximately 250 kilometers. It was obvious that the instructor would train primarily at his location and the nearby caves, which would limit the selection of available caves.
We researched and researched more, studied almost every cave and the surrounding infrastructure. We looked at the instructor listings of the major organizations offering cave diving training, NSS-CDS, NACD and IANTD, browsed the private web sites of most active instructors and tried to understand their personal training focus. We searched for and read countless reports of former student divers in forums and on blogs, sent numerous emails to instructors and students and finally decided on Rob Neto of Chipola Divers as our instructor.
As a result of this decision, it was now a given fact that our training would lead us to the cave systems in the area of Marianna. Subsequently I would like to describe our motivations in order to give you a better understanding of our extensive pre-planning, which may hopefully serve as food for thought.
In Marianna, at the so-called Mill Pond, there are a total of eight caves, including three beautiful caves that can be accessed in a backmount configuration. These three caves are certainly very diverse, so there is a great variation already during the training.
In other areas one will usually only have access to one cave system in the immediatevicinity, access to other caves will typically require a card ride of no less than 30 minutes. On top of that, the three caves in Marianna (Jackson Blue, Twin Cave, Hole in the Wall) are among the most beautiful caves in Florida. For the training, they are also ideal because they offer deep and shallow parts, narrow and spacious passages, silt, rock, sand bottom as well as entries and passages with high and low flow.
Marianna is not a big city with only about 8000 residents, but offers a considerable versatility. There are plenty of affordable hotels and motels to stay at, restaurants, shops and supermarkets are available in abundance. Other locations in Florida are, in comparison, more secluded, and you might have to travel considerable distances just to go shopping or to eat out. Finally our instructor Rob Neto is very active in the cave diving community, very much involved and respected. He is also a recognized expert in sidemount diving. For those who plan to do their training in sidemount, this is quite interesting.
He makes extensive uses the forums, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and the web in general, to communicate with his students and other dive enthusiasts, and to offer them possibilities to reach him. This was very convenient for us in the preparation
phase, since it improved the information flow and facilitated communications.
Looking at Rob’s website you can tell that he puts a high emphasis on the individual needs of his students. This so-called “mentoring” is an important aspect for him. He is not the type of instructor who will simply forget his students after the training is completed and who will not try to keep the contact active. This aspect was very important to us, since we wanted to make sure to find an instructor who would care about our well-being, and not just until we finished our course or paid for it.
After two months of decision-making, our plans were put into effect, we coordinated the dates for the course with Rob Neto via Facebook and scheduled the courses through the calendar module on his website. This calendar function is very practical, open dates are viewed at a glance and can be booked through a small deposit using Paypal. Other instructors are offering such a function as well, to us this was a great service. The rest of the course fees were paid on-site, after completion of the course.
We booked an additional two days of guided diving in addition to our courses, simply to have some free time to tap into, should we find that we would need more time to finish our courses.
And so began the second stage of preparation – the flights, rental-car and the accommodation. Once again Rob was very helpful regarding the organization. He gave us a list of hotels and motels in Marianna and also advised us to look for flights to Jacksonville (JAX) or Atlanta (ATL). We made sure to set the arrival date so that we had a full day on-site for before the course began. This enabled us to make essential purchases on the first day in Marianna and to get used to the new surroundings before the course would begin to completely absorb us. In addition, it is of course important to discuss the necessary equipment well before traveling, There are a few issues to be addressed regarding the gear and luggage:
• Those who dive with a backplate/wing will find that, with the heavy steel tanks common in Florida, that an aluminum backplate will most likely suffice. The heavy stainless steel backplates we brought with us, proved to be way to heavy and useless.
• The water temperature in the caves will be around 20-22 degrees centigrade, accordingly it makes sense to dive in a dry suit, if available. Otherwise a 7mm wetsuit will most likely do, preferably with an ice vest. Our stay was during the first
two weeks of June and we went with a trilaminate shell suit and a 200g Thinsulate jumpsuit. That choice was a good one, we were definitely not too warm. A little tip: If you take a quick dip in the water right after donning the suit, you will hardly sweat later on – despite thick underwear.
• With prior arrangement, many items can most likely be borrowed or, alternatively, purchased in Edd Sorenson´s well-stocked shop “Cave Adventurers”.
• In Marianna, there are several laundromats where you can do your laundry quickly. It took us little more than an hour, and everything was once again spotless and dry – which means you can bring along less luggage in the first place. Those who are in possession of sufficient funds can, of course, also use the laundry service in the hotels.
• Depending on the season, there might be plenty of mosquitos at the Mill Pond – our very first purchase at the supermarket was thus a can of “Off – Deep Woods”. We can unconditionally recommend this brand and we advise against any self-experimentation with European products.
Arrival in Florida
We arrived at the airport in Jacksonville late in the evening of the 30th May. Stephan picked up the luggage while I went to get the rental car. Both went smoothly and subsequently we spent the first night at the Best Western Hotel in Baldwin, near Jacksonville, about half an our on the on Interstate 10 towards Marianna.
Well-rested and refreshed, we continued to Marianna in the morning, a drive of about three hours. Once there, we checked into the Days Inn which we had pre-booked. We were exceedingly happy with this motel, the rooms were clean and free of bugs, unfortunately something not to be taken for granted in the hot climate of Florida.
Finally we enjoyed the first day of the wonderful warm weather (30 to 34 degrees centigrade during the day, 22-26 degrees at night) and the beautiful environment, plus of course the swimming pool of the motel and the local restaurants. Our favorite restaurant was the “PoFolks”, which is right next to the motel. We enjoyed the homemade-style food and the manageable portions, which were exactly to our taste.
The following morning at 9:00am we met Rob Neto in the lobby of our motel. For the first day of the course, theory lessons were scheduled in the spacious and comfortable lobby of the Days Inn – very convenient for us. Rob had already
provided us with the exam questions by email, so we were well prepared. As a tip: you should obtain all required course materials at an early stage, such as through the websites of the NSS-CDS, which has its own web shop. In any case, the “student workbook” is required, which covers the courses cavern through full cave.
Furthermore, highly recommended is the little blue book by Sheck Exley, “Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival”. We had already studied these books extensively back home in Germany.
After a short lunch break, we met at the public boat ramp at the Mill Pond for the first practical exercises. Here laying the line and the handling of reel and spool were practiced, with all the procedures that go with it. The boat ramp is beautifully situated the forest and should henceforth be our daily meeting point at 9:00 am. This is where we began our tours to the caves. Rob owns a private boat, which offers plenty of space for 4-6 divers and their equipment. The advantage of the boat: you can directly access the different caves, picking the perfect one depending on the water conditions and visibility. In addition, students will save a lot of money, because the entrance fee to the cave, “Jackson Blue” by land is currently priced at $25 per person per day. The other caves are very difficult, if not impossible, to reach by land.
The lunch break was spent on the boat as well. There´s no risk of getting sea sick, the Mill Pond is very shallow, the water calm and the boat will not sway at all. We purchased our food on the way to the boat ramp at the local Subway in Marianna, together with necessary soft drinks. A small and inexpensive cooler was bought at the local grocery store, fresh ice for chilling the drinks and sandwiches were available at no charge at the ice machine in the Days Inn.
Thus, we spent the entire remaining course days from morning until late afternoon on the water, or under the water of course. Needless to say, a certain love for the outdoors and a corresponding wildlife “suitability” is a requirement, but you will be rewarded with the sight of free-swimming turtles and many more, for us Europeans, rather alien species.
TIPS & TRICKS
– The prices for airfare can vary by up to 250 EUR, depending on the day and time of the price quote. Therefore, and this applies to accommodation and rental cars as well, clever research can save up to 20% or more
– We advise you to take a written copy of the ESTA form with you, just in case the customs officer cannot find it in the computer system (which conveniently happened to one of us)
– Make sure to get adequate insurance for the rental car, as opposed to European standards, the liability coverage in the U.S. is extremely low.
– A certification card of the traditional associations NSS-CDS, NACD, IANTD or TDI, is internationally recognized and accepted, as an option many instructors may offer to issue multiple certifications of several or even all these associations .
– If you want to do your best to prepare for the training back home, make sure to perfect your buoyancy and trim.
– Owners of a smartphone might want to load a free GPS navigation app with U.S. maps onto their phone – this is much cheaper than the $180 GPS option the rental car companies offer
– Not all motels and rooms are equipped with a well-functioning WLAN.
– In between each of the training courses / segments (cavern, intro / basic, apprentice, full cave), we recommend at least one or two days off.
Please allow us to say a few words about the requirements for the courses. In case you do not fell 100% comfortable in the water, or in case you have issues with your buoyancy and trim, you will find little joy in some of the drills and exercises.
Furthermore you should be aware of the fact that there is no guarantee to pass the courses. A failure may occur at any point, either because the technical skills are inadequate or simply because the instructor might be concerned that your character suitability for this segment of diving is limited or absent.
At this point we would also like to offer a few tips regarding equipment configuration. Our gear was configured in a Hogarthian / D.I.R. style, which proved to be very beneficial. However, we would like to stress that according to the NSSCDS such a configuration is not a prerequisite for participation. Both our instructor, as well as many other instructors we had the pleasure to meet during our stay in Florida, reject ideological approaches like the ones that are somewhat common in some parts of Europe. The equipment must of course comply 100% with all the requirements, which are outlined by the respective associations. Apart from the 2.10m long hose, other equipment details such as hose lengths, brand selection of equipment, number of buckles, D-rings, etc. can be configured individually and pragmatically.
Divers who do not yet posess extensive experience with double tanks or sidemount equipment, should not begin the course in this configuration. If in doubt, speak openly to your instructor about the requirements in order to avoid nasty surprises during the course.
Regarding the contents of the training itself, we would prefer not to disclose too much. On the one hand there are many reports to be found on the Internet, on the other hand everyone should have the chance to experience these courses individually. In addition, one or the other aspect of the courses should also remain a surprise.
Our training got under way and after the first segment, the cavern course, was quickly completed. Diving in the cavern zone, the first step of cave diving, implies that there is always only a short distance to the exit, plus this exit must at all times stay in view of the diver.
According to our schedule we now had two days off and used our time to gain our own practical experience in the area of the cavern diving. Rob gave us useful tips along the way, provided us with double tanks and Nitrox fills, and we were able to experience two wonderful days of diving in the caverns of Jackson Blue Springs and Morrison Spring. Refreshed and with our first practical experience in the laying of lines and diving in the new environment, we continued with the next course on the 5th of June, Basic Cave training.
Finally came the moment we had waited so long for, our first real penetration into a new and unknown world, surrounded by darkness, captured in a whole new dimension of clay, earth and rock. What we experienced was simply breathtaking and words, even pictures, can not even begin to describe what we felt. The experience was just overwhelming!
What impressed us most were the many unknown and fascinating passages into which we dove, with a visibility that almost seemed to be infinite. The caves exercised a magical attraction and drew us deeper into this new, wonderful world.
However the rock ceiling above our heads also reminded us, especially during the first days of the course, always to think about the sense, or the nonsense of or presence in this unfamiliar environment. We consider this to be a mental safeguard,
which will hopefully stay with us for a long time to come.
Finally we were also very surprised by the unexpected fauna with numerous cave animals that we literally ran, or in this case, swam across. And so time flew by while we spent the two days of the course in Jackson Blue Cave and Twin Cave.
We were now “freshly baked” basic cave divers and captivated by the spirit of discovery, we decided without hesitation to enroll in the next course of the four-part series of cave diving courses, the so-called “apprentice to cave ” course. Although we had not originally planned to take this course, we now used the two days reserved in advance for guided diving with Rob, for further training. Ultimately we did not regret this decision, but probably recommend a slightly different plan because in retrospect we would suggest a small break between all course sections, preferably used to gather some practical experience. Quite frankly after the successful completion of the last course, we were both slightly beat-up both mentally and physically. In our case a little break of two days between Basic Cave and Apprentice would probably have
been a little more relaxing.
Particularly noteworthy is the fact that Rob Neto proved to be extremely helpful, beginning with the perfect individual adjustment of the doubles (which he adjusted for us multiple times during the courses), the borrowing of gear and even fixing of broken equipment. It so happened that my diving buddy suffered a primary light failure right at the beginning of the courses, Rob provided him with a replacement canister light for the duration of the course – free of charge.
Furthermore, we were lucky that in between courses, Rob took us to the caves with his boat without charging us – this is far from self-evident and was greatly appreciated.
Lastly, please allow us to remark that despite all the courtesy, Rob Neto is also a very experienced and clever instructor. Those registering for cave courses with him can, all organizational and human concessions aside, not expect to get any “free lunch” and should prepare mentally for the “dark side” of the training. We should note that it is expected that the students will, without reservation, approach their mental and diving-related performance limits. Cave diving is not a casual pastime, but a very serious matter where small errors can lead to the gravest of consequences.
Translation of the captions:
Page 1 (diver at sign):
„Proper training is the basic requirement for safe diving in the caves – not just because it
says so on the sign“
Page 2 (panorama of Morrison Springs)
„Crystal-clear and 21 degree cool water at Morrison Springs“
Page 2 ( gear on table)
„Morrison Springs offers great infrastructure – with free supervision by the county deputy
Page 3 (top left, diver)
„Stephan Krawinkel in Peacock Springs where we dove for several days after completion
of our training“
Page 3 (center, gear on bench)
„A Hogarthian / D.I.R. gear configuration is perfect for Floridas caves, with our tanks
(LP85) Aluminum backplates without further weight were sufficient“
Page 3 (lower right)
„The instructor Rob (center) and his two students (the author left, Stephan right) after
completion of the courses“
A very nice video of Jackson Blue by Slawek Packo:
The web site of Chipola Divers und Rob Neto:
A video of our graduation dive in „Hole in the Wall“: