Old Bellamy and Beyond
by Alan Heck
Exploration of the cave system around and between River Sink and River Rise on the Santa Fe has been going on for over nine years. What began as a dive into a local farmers sink hole gradually grew into one of the largest cave systems in North Central Florida with over 60,000 feet of explored passage and probably that much more unexplored. Its been fun being one of the primary explorers on this project but, although the decision was not left to me alone, its time to move on. Much was learned about the cave geography but, equally important, much was learned about exploration technique and the politics of 'team' diving.
During the severe drought conditions of the past several years, visibility in the system remained relatively good. The system was receiving a large proportion of spring water relative to tannic river water. Visibility in the lower portion of the system, Sweetwater Lake and Two Hole area, at times would reach 50 to 60 ft and exploration was easy. Large teams of multiple divers could be put into the various sinkholes and lay over a 1000 feet of new line on a dive. 'Scootering' was easy and deep penetrations were possible. Things were good. The team was busy and content.
New divers were brought on to the team. Many of these divers showed up for several dives and then faded away but a few such as Alex Warren and Cindy Butler became dedicated members of the team. Alex built and installed the 'deco' trees in Bee Tree Sink and Little Blue Sink and made numerous dives in Sweetwater Lake and River Rise when he could spare the time away from his primary project at Beacon Woods and Wayne's World. Cindy, who would dive anywhere or anytime, was a huge help in exploring the low-visibility tunnels in the northern end of the system where river water intrusion tends to be higher. I would like to thank whoever recruited them to the team because they alone sustained the exploration until they were both unceremoniously 'booted' from the project.
In late 2002, beginning with the winter turn-over, and continuing through the flooding of early 2003, visibility in the system dropped to near zero levels. Several dives were made to check water conditions, hoping perhaps the water had stratified and clearer lenses of water might be found to continue exploration. No such luck. Visibility cleared to 10ft on occasion but remained closer to 5ft most of the time. This, obviously, is not a good condition for exploration, especially in large tunnel such as that in the Old Bellamy system. Frustrated by the visibility but eager to continue exploration, new techniques gradually evolved.
Evolution of New Techniques
A lot of time was spent 'ridge walking' the park and becoming as familiar as possible with the terrain of the area through which the cave ran. This is something that is often overlooked in the eagerness to get in the water. With a better understanding of the terrain, a better decision can often be made as to which wall to follow in the system or which general heading to take over a debris mound in low visibility situations. Running out of patience as the water cleared all too slowly if at all), but armed with a better understanding of the topography, we felt more comfortable with tackling the conditions.
Its not an uncommon thing. When deprived of one of our senses, the others become more acute. Deprived of our sense of 'sight' in the Oleno system, we became more attuned to other clues - water movement, bottom contour, and bottom conditions - to navigate through the system. Water movement kept us heading in the same relative direction. In some cases, when the flow abated, ripples on the bottom were used. The composition and type of debris on the bottom would often indicate a sinkhole above. These techniques were not foolproof and some time was still spent swimming in circles but , slowly but surely, we worked our way from sinkhole to sinkhole.
You are probably wondering why even dive in these conditions. And you could probably argue that point very effectively. If we drove to Peacock or Little River and the tunnel was tannic, certainly we would abort the dive. Nothing would be gained by diving in such conditions. But now consider the same conditions, but someone or something was lost in the system. Now there may be some value to diving in such conditions. I can think of more than a few cases where this has in fact occurred.
Well, I attached a lot of value to determining the path of water flow between River Sink and River Rise and was not alone in this although I will admit that perhaps I attached a disproportionately greater value to it than others might. At any rate, the lure of the exploration was there as well as the perceived value in continuing in spite of the conditions. We made sure we went slowly, paid more attention to detail in planning and executing the dive, and fine-tuned our buddy techniques. We tried not to think about the gators, who left us alone for the most part. Big Alligator Lake was appropriately named.
The area of Oleno State Park which was being explored was somewhat unique in that it was characterized by a lot of sinkholes. It was not apparent what the path was between these sinkholes but it was obvious that they were connected somehow. Even with the survey data gathered during a dive, the exact sinkhole traversed was not always conclusive. We couldn't usually surface in these sinkholes because of decompression obligations. And trying to relocate our line by entering from the suspected sinkhole likewise was very inefficient in the limited visibility. The technique we devised was to release small floats (e.g. Clorox bottles) whenever we suspected we were in a new sink. After the dive, we would then walk to the suspected sinkhole and could unequivocally verify that we had traversed it by locating our float. In this manner, Big Alligator Sink was connected upstream to Ravines, through three intermediate sinkholes, and downstream to Jim's Sink, again through three intermediate sinkholes.
Because many of the sinks were small, somewhat remote from the road, with steep sides, access was difficult. Traditional doubles were too heavy to tote these distances up and down the steep inclines. Some of the inclines were so steep that a chain ladder had to be used to reach the water level. The easiest configuration to use in these situations was to sidemount. The tanks could easily be carried to the water individually and donned in the water at the entry point. As penetrations became longer, one or two stages were added to the configuration. Coincidentally at this same time, Brian Williams had shown us several sumps off the park but with possible Old Bellamy connections. With his assistance and the assistance of several of his dry caving friends, we had begun experimenting with sump diving. They helped us repel into several sinks which we then explored with sidemount configurations. The accessibility and visibility problems of the Oleno sinks were tame in comparison.
Beyond Old Bellamy
Armed with these new techniques, the project surged (if a snail can surge) ahead. However, the exploration, at this point, started to transform and take on a life of itself. There were signs that the team was disintegrating and I found myself putting off other dives that I wanted make and postponing other projects to be available to dive at Oleno when I could get someone to accompany me. Its time to back away. I can look back on what was accomplished over the last nine years (and over 200 dives in the Old Bellamy system) and take satisfaction in it. The ultimate connection is imminent with only a short gap in the Sweetwater/River Rise line segment and a slightly larger gap in the Jug Lake/Jim Sink line segment. The amount of unexplored passage, however, is still tremendous.
I think ultimately what will be found is that River Sink is not the main source of water entering the system and that several swallets, such as Vinzant's Landing, and in-feeders, such as the Derrickson Tunnel, contribute much more water to the system. Likewise, I don't think River Rise is the only outlet for the system. I think a lot of 'things' are happening in the Downing Lake area of the system and that there are major branches in the system in that area which vent further downstream from the Rise, perhaps springs such as Columbia Spring or others yet to be found. I don't think the true magnitude of the system has been imagined. Hopefully, as future exploration unravels this immensity, the recharge areas of the system can be identified by DEP and protected to the maximum extent possible. The segment of tunnel between Ogden Pond and Ravines is as 'alive' as any cave I've dove in and, ultimately, this is what it is all about.