Sorry this is a long post but I had extra time on the plane and at work..
A little background information first. It was a while ago that I started my "full cave" journey. In March 2012 I took Cavern/Intro/Apprentice with German Yanez in Cozumel, Mexico. He was a great instructor and I really enjoyed class with him but this was all on open circuit and to be perfectly honest I haven't dove doubles frequently enough in the last two years to want to complete my full cave on open circuit. I still dive OC but I just prefer to be on a rebreather for most dives below 80ft or anything with overhead; it is an entirely arbitrary number/thing but I prefer CCR.
Originally my main desire for learning to "cave dive" was primarily for wreck diving and learning proper reel procedures and other drills associated with an overhead environment. I work on a charter boat in New England and do a lot of wreck dives. Reels are essential up here if you don't want to get lost and I think I will always be more of a wreck person at heart although the cave has grown on me considerably. It is almost enough that I am now debating looking at jobs in Florida to be closer to caves. Not quite ready to call myself a cave diver just yet however.
Admittedly between now than then I only had ~40 cave dives at Intro to Cave level spread out over 4-5 years. Classic "cave tourist." All of my cave training and fun cave diving was down in Mexico. I also frequently dive in a flooded mine in Vermont but that's an entirely different animal; it's an overhead environment with permanent guidelines/jumps but I don't strictly count that as a cave although we follow same procedures up there.
For my rebreather, I'm diving a rEvo mini mCCR with MOD1 (Air Diluent) and MOD2 (Normoxic Trimix). I still
consider myself relatively new on a rebreather. I think I'm approaching 2.5 years on my unit but I dive pretty much every weekend. I currently have ~355 hours on my rebreather (according to my Shearwater log).
I originally thought that CCR Cave was a unit specific course but apparently it depends on the agency. In any case I had reached out to Dr. Mel Clark who was really helpful in answering questions. Her book, "CCR Cave Diving Almost Simplified" is a fantastic resource; I recommend it to anyone. She has a nice, simple, and no bullshit approach to presenting information that I really like. Unfortunately our dates didn't line up so I couldn't schedule my course with her but hopefully I can do something in future.
Paul was recommended to me by German Yanez. A few other friends that had taken Full Cave and CCR Full Cave courses also recommended that I reach out to him since he is local to Florida and his schedule is pretty flexible. I had sent him an email and then spoke with him on the phone a few times. I told him what I had for gear, what rebreather I was using, and what my experience level was. No unit bashing (at least not to me directly) and no shitting on other instructors or agencies. My little BBOD (Belgian Box of Death) would suffice just fine. I know there are some rebreather/cave diving politics in play down in Florida Cave Country but thankfully I experienced none of that myself. At this point we figured out that my dates worked for him and he penciled me into his schedule-and I mean literally penciling me into his schedule. Paul is not much of an internet guy so I could imagine him literally doing this. About week before course he emailed me some paperwork to fill out and called me on phone.
Since this would be my first time diving in North Florida cave country I really had no idea what to expect. I reached out to some other cave buddies who gave me the lay of the land and told me the big differences between High Springs and Live Oak areas. Paul had suggested I reach out to Cathy at Dive Outpost for accommodations. That turned out to be awesome place. Cathy and DJ were awesome. Her deco cookies probably made me gain a few pounds but I'll probably blame that on all the beer I drink at the camp fire at night. I also quickly learned why Paul suggested Dive Outpost, as he has a 2nd home not more than a stone's throw away from the dive shop. Myself and another buddy (John-full cave OC) booked into one of the cabins for the week.
My friend John finished his full cave last year in Mexico. We dove together before and after my class. He also ended up doing some dives with DJ at Dive Outpost and some other friends that came down later in the week.
Getting to Florida
Me and John decided to be super lazy and fly instead of driving down to Florida.
John's packing proved to be much easier than mine since I had to lug a full rebreather, multiple stage/bailout regs, drysuit, undergarments, reels/spools, and all other manner of accouterments and extra parts. It honestly wasn't too bad. I am used to flying down to Mexico with my rebreather so not having to clear Mexican and US Customs was great. I must admit it felt strange not having my passport with me while packing dive gear.
We booked a flight from Boston to Jacksonville on JetBlue and rented an SUV from Budget. By some manner of luck we managed to score a small SUV for $145 USD for the week with all taxes/fees included.
Thousands Standing Around (TSA)
Going through TSA in Boston is always a fascinating experience. You occasionally get such highly trained and professional government agents who are so indifferent and woefully inept at their job that packing your scrubbers full of 6lbs of cocaine would seem like a genuinely good idea if you wanted to start a drug smuggling business as a side hobby. Sadly this was not one of those occasions. In fact I got someone so good at their job and hell-bent on protecting this great land from the terrorists that they found it necessary to unpack and inspect virtually every single piece of my dive gear and maybe even the underwear that I skillfully wrapped around my regulators to protect them.
Enter the rebreather. I might as well have been wearing a Proton pack from the Ghostbusters on my back. I explained to them it was a "rebreather" but that didn't really mean anything to them in the same way that free socialized healthcare and background checks for purchasing large oversized assault rifles means nothing to most Republicans. Different strokes I guess. After I explained to them it was "scuba diving gear/life support equipment for cave diving" but they were still convinced it was a probably a Large Hadron Collider. They ran all sorts of explosive tests and re-ran it through their X-Ray machine about 3 times. The trouble is nobody wanted to actually clear it to fly; nobody would actually take responsibly for letting it on the plane so I went through three TSA agents.
I was extremely polite and patient turning this ordeal, you kind of have no choice unless you want to end up on some sort of government watch list or at Gitmo. Finally I sh#t you not..They sent out someone wearing an Explosives Detection Unit shirt. He was pretty cool and knew exactly what a rebreather was. He did one more quick test and sent me happily on my way. Total process took about 25 minutes (seriously I timed it.). I suppose now is a good time to mention I typically fly with fully packed scrubbers. I like to call them "air filters" which seems less likely to confuse TSA than saying cartridges of chemical CO2 absorbent granules that just so happen to be mildly caustic when exposed to the right conditions.
Our little SUV turned out to be a Jeep Renegade which is a very poor excuse for a Jeep. The Renegade is based off the Fiat platform and about the only thing it has in common with its Jeep brethren is the name. Still for 145 bucks we could hardly complain. At the end of the trip it looked someone had dumped gallons of mud into the front seats which conveniently had no floor mats. Nothing a carwash vacuum couldn't handle.
From the Jacksonville Airport to Dive Outpost in Live Oak, FL is about an hour and 45 minute trip.
We mostly grilled burgers, sausages, and steaks at the Dive Outpost. We were on a strict no vegetable diet of mostly red meat. For breakfast we went to the Luraville Country Store most mornings for their world-class Michelin star rated microwave breakfast sandwiches. They were actually alright but breakfast options seemed to be limited in that area. It was also here I learned more about farming than I ever thought was possible by overhearing some of the local patrons. They also all seemed to know Paul and jokingly asked me if I had paid him in advance before he took me diving. Another night we went out to a BBQ joint for ribs (can't remember the name) and the Mayo Cafe for fried chicken.
The Shakedown Dive
We arrived at Dive Outpost if I recall a little past 4pm on Sunday. John rented some cave filled LP95s and I rented some rebreather tanks and a bailout bottle. We wanted to get a shake down dive in before I started my class the next day with Paul. As luck would have it, it was the first day of daylight savings time so Peacock closed at 7pm instead of 6pm. This meant we wouldn't have to drive all the way to Ginnie Springs (an hour) and dive the Ballroom which was our backup plan if we couldn't make Peacock in time since neither one of us had dove in Florida caves before.
We decided to keep it simple and dive Peacock I to Olsen Sink since I was told it was all gold line navigation and no jumps. It seemed like a really good plan for a shake down dive, nothing too complicated. I fully admit we didn't run a primary reel because the gold line practically starts right in open water and it was blatantly obvious where the line was. We dropped cookies where the arrows switched directions/exits and John was able to make it to Olsen Sink before thirds easily without any problems. Our total runtime was 86 minutes. We surfaced at Olsen Sink to look around and talk about 5-10 minutes. It was here that I found out that duckweed tastes amazing in your DSV.
Here is where we f*cked up. We didn't run a reel up to Olsen Sink (I was told this is a common mistake that happens to people but I was pretty disappointed in myself) so when we went back down we headed towards other direction. It didn't take us very long (maybe 5 minutes) to realize this was an entirely different tunnel so we turned around since we didn't recognize where we were and I started see other team's cookies on the line that I hadn't noticed before. I remembered being briefed that this *could* happen and why you should run a reel up to Olsen if you aren't familiar with it. Now I know why. I realize this is a rookie mistake and we were much better at navigation and cave awareness the rest of the week with no other navigation issues.
Equipment and Gases
I dove my rEvo mCCR mini for the class. It has a Shearwater on a Fischer cable and a rEvoDream for HUD/Secondary ppO2 display. I also have a standalone Petrel as a backup computer.
I removed my DSix stand and installed a DiveRite buttplate to sidemount bailouts for better trim. I've been using the sidemount buttplate for the last 3-4 months but I admit I really miss my stand. However I found having -2.6lbs in wrong direction doesn't do any wonders for my trim. That being said, not diving the rEvo with any weight felt great. Paul said my trim was fine but he could also be a good liar. My other dive buddies also said it looked good.
I carried an AL80 with 32% for my bailout for all dives with a 7ft primary hose and LP inflator for offboard gas addition. I also staged another AL80 in cave and O2 at entrance when appropriate.
I dove air for my diluent on all dives except the last day when we dove Ginnie Springs. Then I used a very light trimix diluent in anticipation of the massive amounts of flow I was told I would encounter that would kick my ass. I also like helium for better work of breathing. I think Paul made fun of me since it was the first time in about a year that I've dove air. I bank 15/50 at home and use it for everything under the sun and then top off with air when I don't need something as heavy on the He content.
Paul's style of class and instruction is very laid back. I really like that; he'll tell you if you mess something up but not in any sort of demeaning way. It felt more like actual diving with a few drills conveniently inserted into the mix as opposed to drills, drills, drills and 5 minutes of actual diving.
I really hate drill sergeant-like instruction. I must admit when I think of cave diving instruction it's usually filled with wonderfully whimsical visions of the great and powerful GI3 pelting 4 or 5lb leads weights at students' heads all while simultaneously being forced to do push-ups with double LP104s on your back in between valve drills while blindfolded. I'm happy to report that I've never actually experienced that level of instruction.
We finished filling out paperwork at the bonfire at the Dive Outpost and talked about skills and layout of the class. He briefed skills while driving to the dive site and right before we got into the water so I knew what was expected. We quickly talked about how he wanted jump reels/spools setup and we went over cookies/arrows and tie offs. All of this was a mostly review from Intro/Apprentice but it was good to hear again.
We also had classroom session at the Dive Outpost going over NSS-CDS/IANTD workbooks (I had both of them.)
I also pulled out my old NACD Cavern and Cave Workbook for reference from my Cavern/Intro Class. I asked Paul if he thought this might belong in a museum. Not sure if he thought my joke was funny? In any case I reckon I have a better chance at winning the lottery while simultaneously being struck by lightening than getting an NACD card in the mail.
For our first training dive we did Orange Grove Sink to Distance Tunnel. I ran a primary and tied into the gold line. Our runtime was around 94 minutes. Not many drills on this dive. I think Paul just wanted to check my buoyancy/trim and make sure I wasn't a total clusterf*ck in the water. At some point he switched off my primary light and had me exit the cave on my one my backup lights.
For our 2nd dive of the day we dove Peacock I through Breakdown Room to the Crossover and Olsen Sink. I ran primary reel and setup all the jumps to complete a mini-circuit the next day. Total runtime was ~94 minutes again. We surfaced at Olsen Sink. On the way out we did a bunch of drills. At one point during dive he gave me OOA signal to see how quickly I could donate my bailout reg. That worked fine. I keep my bailout reg bungeed under my neck. After that we did an out of air sharing drill with lights out through I believe Breakdown Room or Chute where it is all rock and hard to silt up. I did this as donor and receiver. My friend John was actually diving with us just for this day so he ended up being my buddy for OOA drills. I know we did some other skills but I can't recall what they were. It might have been some rebreather specific stuff. We also did a little no-mask swim work while following the line (I could see my HUD) and switching to a backup mask. At one point he had me take a fin off and swim for a distance using one fin. I don't remember doing this in my cavern/intro but it was a while ago. It actually wasn't too bad at all. I also should note that my Shearwater Petrels on high brightness work very well as "lights" once your eyes adjust to the darkness in the unlikely event all 4 of the lights I was carrying simultaneously fail.
The next day Paul had me complete the small circuit I setup the previous day. We went through Peacock I via Pothole Sink, heading towards Olsen Sink and collected my jumps at Olsen and the Crossover then back through the breakdown room. We did more air sharing and lights out drills. Total runtime was 76 minutes. For our second dive we went back in through Peacock I and did a lost buddy drill, made another jump and explored a bit more. It was a short dive at only 62 minutes.
The following day we went to Little River. This was my first experience with flow. It wasn't as bad as I expected. I actually kind of enjoyed the flow. It's like drift diving on the way out. We had a two hour runtime (111 minute dive). I jumped to the Mud Tunnel and back to the gold line. At some point we encountered a T that I cookied and headed toward Merry Go Round Tunnel, a bit further and we hit another T in the system that I cookied toward Florida Room. I could be wrong but that is what I wrote down. At some point Paul pretended to go the wrong direction and crossover to a different tunnel but I caught that pretty quickly.
Finally we went to Cow Downstream (I've was told Upstream is reserved for Full Cave) and did a bunch more drills. I did a lost line drill and a bunch of rebreather specific drills (boom drills, offboard gas/SCR/bailouts). It is absolutely amazing how easy valve/boom drills are without wearing 5-6 layers under your drysuit. Finally I did another lights out drill while sharing air. I think our runtime here was 77 minutes.
The next day we completed the Grand Traverse (Mile Run) but with a twist. I've been told this is often a rite of passage for completing full cave. We did what I believe is called the Grand Reverse (Essentially Grand Traverse 2x). We entered the system at Peacock I and swam to Orange Grove Sink just to the cave sign without surfacing and then swam back the other direction collecting jumps on way back. Our max depth was 62ft and our total runtime was 211 minutes (or 3 hours 31 minutes). I know it's not much to brag about but it beat my previous dive time by about 35-40 minutes. I'd be hypothermic if I tried to stay 3 hours in the water in New England.
Almost 2 miles of swimming. I don't think I'll do that again, at least not for a while. I quickly learned that a three letter abbreviation for swimming is apparently 'DPV' except not it in Peacock. We stopped along the way to do some minor line repair with Paul checking where my cutting devices were but other than that not too many drills on this dive as I recall. Perhaps another lost buddy drill?
I had broken one of my ankles almost 7 years ago and at this point it started acting up. Ibuprofen to the rescue.
On Friday I went back to Little River for another experience with the flow. We just did one dive that day. Max depth 103ft and a runtime of 92 minutes. I pretty much did the same dive as before jumping to the mud tunnel and going past the two Ts towards the Florida room.
It was after this that Paul set me free to the world. My buddy John and I got to experience Ginnie Springs in its full splendor on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the middle of Spring Break. We met a couple of other friends from Boston that were down here from cave diving and dove in a team of four. To be honest I actually liked Ginnie Springs the least out of all the systems I dove. Way too crowded. I am told it's much better on weekdays.
There were people everywhere. It looked like something that was a cross between a Kenny Chesney and Jimmy Buffet concert gone horribly wrong. People everywhere on tubes and tons of teams diving. I've never seen that much traffic inside a cave before. Swimming back to the stairs was akin to navigating an active mine field where the mines have been replaced with bikini-clad women and drunken frat boys on tubes. I will say this however, the topside and shallow "scenery" was very pleasant. Sorry, i'm a guy.. On the other hand there are some people that just simply should never wear bikinis, this applies to men as well. I thought I was at Manatee Springs for a brief moment. All joking aside Ginnie Springs was beautiful.
Our first dive was through the Ear to Hill 400 line to Bats and a bit further past 1800' arrow. Max depth: 101ft Runtime: 111 minutes. We did a shorter 2nd dive back through Ear towards Bone Room, ran a reel to White Room and a little past the Big Room. Max depth: 96ft Runtime: 76 minutes. Visibility: Almost forever as they say.
Deco was crowded at the Ear with tons of free divers, people in sidemount and all matters of other configurations. It was a great way to end a dive trip.
People warned me that Ginnie would kick my ass and try to spit me out backwards. I'm happy to report my fingers survived a week of cave diving, 2 days of Little River, and 2 dives at Ginnie Springs without any issues or bleeding. We even hit up the Great Outdoors restaurant so I could order Buffalo wings to prove my point. I later learned that this is often a sadistic ritual that some instructors put their students through after diving Ginnie Springs.
Overall it was a fantastic week and I am already planning my next trip down to Florida cave country.