Cave diving is high in adventure, risk

March 07, 1993|By Brad Wetzler | Brad Wetzler,Universal Press Syndicate

This time next year, high on the Huautla Plateau in southern Mexico, some engineers, climbers and divers who call themselves the U.S. Deep Cave Diving Team will crawl into a tunnel, bringing with them thousands of pounds of supplies and a plan to go deeper into the earth than anyone has gone before.

Over the next several weeks, the explorers, led by engineer Bill Stone, will rappel down waterfalls, tramp through brackish water, and follow roaring underground rivers to a depth of 2,800 feet below the surface. Then the tunnel will disappear into the crystal-clear pool of water called the San Augustin Sump. At that point the real adventure begins.

Armed with an innovative breathing apparatus that filters exhaled carbon dioxide and recirculates oxygen to the diver, the team will push on, into the flooded tunnel. If they do reach the other side of the sump, they'll continue crawling and climbing, in search of the Cueva de la Pena Colorado, a charted underground river that will lead them to daylight.

For all the talk of adventure travel these days, it's hard to imagine an expedition that's as certifiably adventurous as the Huautla cave expedition. If something goes wrong for the team and they need immediate help, they might as well be on another planet.

Still, you don't have to travel a half-mile below Mexican soil to give this alluring if extremely dangerous sport a try. Flooded caves pock Texas, Idaho, Kentucky and a handful of other states. But by far the most popular cave diving sites in the United States are underneath the ponds and springs in sun-baked north-central Florida.

In these flatlands, cormorants and herons flutter overhead; below the surface of the area's ponds, however, lie labyrinthian systems of narrow limestone caves -- some of them mapped, many of them unexplored.

Those who dream of following in Mr. Stone's footsteps, however, take note. "Caving: The Sierra Club Guide to Spelunking begins its chapter on cave diving" this way: "Caution: It would be difficult to find a mode of exploration more dangerous than cave diving."

If you haven't heard about the sport, you're not alone. The associations that oversee certification like it that way. They don't want their caves crowded with rookie divers, and they don't want you to die.

"They have an absolute vow not to promote cave diving," says Wes Skiles, an underwater filmmaker who has 20 years of cave-diving experience. "But if you have the slightest interest, they'd rather you know how to do it safely." In other words, special cave-diving instruction is a must.

Fortunately, there are several excellent schools that can teach you how to cave dive safely. For example, Florida's Ginnie Springs Resort in High Springs and Blue Grotto Dive Resort in Williston offer series of four two-day sessions that lead to certification from the National Association of Cave Diving and the National Speleological Society, Cave Diving Section.

Opened to certified open-water scuba divers with 25 to 50 dives under their belts, the series begins with diving instruction in

caverns, which are caves with ambient lighting

where the surface is visible.

The next two-day course -- think of it as "Introduction to Cave Diving" -- is usually, though not necessarily, taken immediately after cavern certification.

In "Intro," you'll make four more dives in two days, learning how to handle the extra weight of double tanks and three heavy-duty lights, to string a continuous line to the cave's exit, and to achieve the proper buoyancy control to keep you from stirring up silt. The combination of darkness, the beam from your light, and silt is notorious for inducing disorientation and panic, which is a fast

track to serious problems or death.

You'll spend the final four days working toward full cave diving certification. Swimming farther into the cave systems, you'll become more accustomed to having a ceiling overhead and become more relaxed knowing that open air is hundreds of horizontal feet away.

Both schools offer classes year round, and the eight-day certification process costs about $800. Your food and lodging are not included, but there's an excellent bed and breakfast a half-mile from Ginnie Springs, and camping along Florida's Santa Fe River is also an option.

In all there are more than a hundred divable caves in north-central Florida and several dive shops that offer instruction in cavern and cave diving. Your local dive shops also may offer cavern and cave-diving courses, but again, you'll probably have to travel to north-central Florida for the instruction.

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