Down we go, deep, deeper, deepest! Technical diving in Key West

 

Time to get the nitrogen levels back up in the bloodstream, and what better way to do that than to head down, way down, on some deep wrecks off the sunny shores of Key West?

Steve Lewis, VP of TDI, along with Joe Weatherby joined Dave V on a technical diving excursion to explore some of the deeper wrecks located off the southernmost key.   Sadly, the weather gods are not giving us any good signs for this weekend, so we are heading south with fingers crossed for the best!

Thursday evening we arrive at IVS-Key West’s base on Stock Island and set up camp in our condo there.  This is one nice home away from home for sure, and we are thrilled to have met the owner, Mike Bullock, through our favorite dive operator here, Chris Norwood, owner of Florida Straits Diving.  Three bedrooms, accommodations for eight, newly refurbished throughout, this is living large indeed!

Friday morning comes and with it the 7:00 a.m. NOAA marine weather update.  Ruh roh – six to eight footers on the outside today with twenty-five knot winds whistling through.  Not the perfect recipe for a small boat and heavily laded divers on the ocean!  So, do we cancel?  Are you kidding?  We get a slightly larger boat! 

Our friends at Sub-Tropic step up and offer their boat for the day, which coincidently was available since no customers wanted to head out in these conditions!  Works for us, and we loaded up our gear, and motored out to the Vandenberg.  Seas were, shall we say, a bit testy, but we managed, and in spite of the topside conditions, the ocean below was perfect, with minimal current and 200 plus feet of visibility in the clear blue water.  Nice!

We dropped right into the #2 cargo hatch, descending down to 130 feet, and slip inside for Joe’s exclusive “hole in the wall” tour, covering over 400 feet of this wreck’s interior and never popping out until we drop into the engine room in the stern.  What a cool tour it is, lots of tight passageways, many turns, some areas with no alternate exits…all good for a great dive and a nice adrenalin rush too!

We spend 46 minutes at depth, finish off a ten minute deco obligation, and climb back aboard with big smiles.  The ladder is a bit challenging, balancing doubles on our back, and two slung stage bottles each, but we manage, and get ready to enjoy a few minutes of de-briefing and relaxing on board. 

OK, few minutes are up, it is time to dive again!  Gear back up, splash, and drop down, this time towards the stern of this majestic wreck.  Take a quick look-around at the stern, then we head up to the hanger area, where they used to store the weather balloon.  Once inside, we drop down the chute to the laundry room, at 140 ft.  This is a very cool drop, as the chute is about an 80 ft vertical drop, and it is only one diver wide.  Best part?  Once you enter, there are NO outlets till you get to the bottom, so commitment is key here! 

We exit out the bottom, and take a tour of the former laundry room, still full of steam presses and washers and dryers that completed their duty at sea.  This is a real tight area, and you have to by uber-careful to not silt things up once inside.  Buoyancy control and situational awareness is key, cause things could go to hell in a New York minute here.  After some good photo op’s, we head out the rear stairwell, up one level, then begin a tour forward through lots of crew berthing areas.  Bed frames, toilets and sinks, and personal storage lockers tell the story of what these spaces once were.  All sorts of new life forms are here now, “scouts” in a sense for a whole generation of new critters to come to these areas of eternal darkness (OK, except for the occasional zillion megawatt divers lights!),  Very cool to be witness to a sort of evolution as the sea reclaims this vessel.

Another forty minutes of bottom time passes too quickly, and we head back up, finishing off with a little 50% and 100% O2 mixes on the way to the surface.  A good day of diving, great wreck, great boat and crew from Sub-Tropic, and it’s time to head back in.  The sunset ride in just tops the day off, and we grab a quick bite and prepare our dive plans for tomorrow’s activities. 

Saturday morning comes and the wind continues to blow hard, from the south, which is a bad thing, cause there is a lot of ocean to blow across between here and Cuba, giving the wind, and the waves, time to build themselves up nicely.  None the less, we are here on a mission, so in spite of being the only boat heading out, we’re going diving!  We head our after lunch, and our first stop is the USS Curb, a former naval tug that sits upright now in 185 feet of water.  There it is on the sonar, so we check current direction, and make a few passes over the wreck to confirm we are on it.  The grapple is dropped, and we hook into it (there are no mooring balls).  One, two, three, we drop down into the abyss, and are greeted with views of the wreck from well over a hundred feet away. 

An absolutely amazing quantity and variety of life live on this wreck, sitting like an oasis in the middle of miles of flat, sandy plains.  From the smallest baitfish (what do you have to do wrong in this life to come back as a baitfish?  You don’t even get a name for your species, just “baitfish”) to huge 400# Goliath groupers (at least they get a name!), this wreck is a haven for life.  Marauding amberjacks and horse-eye jacks make passes at the smaller fish, and the fray is exciting to watch as someone goes home with dinner, while some else becomes a dinner.  Enough eloquent waxing on my part, back to the wreck!  Covered with snagged fishing nets and miles of monofilament, this wreck is a snagged diver waiting to happen, so make sure you have your line cutter or z-knife handy, and a bigger blade for the larger stuff. 

We’re diving a mix of 20% oxygen, 25% helium, and 55% nitrogen on this dive, so we enjoy 20 minutes of bottom time at 170 feet, followed by a nice 30 minutes of deco as we ascend.  The conditions remain perfect so the hang time is a pleasure with all sorts of things to watch as we pass the time.    

Stop number 2 is the Vandenberg again, but this time it is a night dive, as the sun has dipped below the waves for the day.  We hit 146 feet as we spent a lot of time exploring the engine rooms and machinery areas, racking up another 35 minutes of bottom time on our remaining trimix.  My friends spent most of the time shallower, but I wanted to pictures of the machinery, and these conditions would be tough to match another day, so my entire dive was spent below 140 ft.  Of course this comes with a price, that being a fifty minute deco obligation, with the last thirty minutes alone, hanging in the dark, catching the occasional silvery flash of a barracuda or other night time predator as they flew by, checking out the life form that was hanging there in the water.  Finally, an hour and twenty-five minutes after descending, I am back on board, and we enjoy a few beers as we toast the day’s events.  The sea had even laid down a bit for us as we headed back to the dock, making our nocturnal journey a little more mellow!

So it was time to grab a late dinner, so my friend Steve, who is Canadian and has traveled extensively through Cuba, and Joe, who is not, but somehow has also traveled frequently to Cuba, decided that is what we need to eat tonight – Cuban fare!  Well anyone who knows me would realize that Dave and any food containing spices don’t match up well, but I go, figuring there should be enough Presidente Light to wash down whatever I am convinced will be safe for this gringo to eat.  Dinner is fine, service is great, and we call it a night again.

Sunday, the winds are down a bit, but not gone, and our target today is the former naval cruiser USS Wilkes Barre, which likes almost 20 miles north up the coast from Key West.  So we batten down the hatches and head out, staying inside the reef as long as we can to minimize the seas, but eventually heading out to find our wreck.  This 650 ft long vessel was being used for the testing of underwater demolitions, and the test worked great, being detonated directly underneath the ship, and the concussion essentially ‘breaking the ships back’, as it lifted, ripped apart, then settle to the sea floor.  The stern is sitting perfectly upright in 240 feet of water, and the bow is settled a short distance away, laying on it’s port side.  Are target is the stern so we can enjoy this multi-level treasure and really get a chance to some some exploring.  We pick it up on sonar, sure enough it has a huge signature, and the grapple is dropped.  We complete our final gear checks, and splash.  Our blend today is 18/35, the lower oxygen content to avoid CNS toxicity and the resulting convulsions and death that typically accompany it, and the higher helium blend helps reduce the nitrogen in our mix, better to avoid being narc’d out of our minds and forgetting to do things, like maybe ascend!  We complete our ensemble with a couple of stage bottles, with our flavors today being the tried and true 50% and 100% oxygen mixes.

Well we start down the line, and we descend, expecting to reach the top of the wreck at 165 ft or so. This is where it gets a little weird, cause there is no wreck there.  OK, 175, 185, hmmmmm….finally, as we pass 200, there it is, a huge wreck, laying, well, on it’s side!  What the heck!  We are hooked to the bow section, not the stern!!  Time to rethink the dive plan a bit, but we’re OK, as we had planned a pretty aggressive dive depth-wise, and now the conditions matched our plans!   So we dropped down to 230 feet and spent about ten minutes there, checking out the gun turrets, deck fittings, and piles of things that have been snagged on this wreck over the years and lost by other boaters.   Up to 200 feet for another 12 minutes, then let’s grab the grapple hook and tie it off to itself so it doesn’t snag on anything else.  Well, the current had evidently picked up on the surface while we were down, cause when we unhooked the grapple, it took off like a kite, with Steve and Joe trying to tie it off, and me trying to hold the line down below our first stop depth. 

On another dive this might have been fun, but with our bodies chock full of helium, the rate of descent is very critical.  Those little molecules really like to jump out of our cells easily, so they need sufficient time for us to breath them out of our systems.  So, after a little struggling, we get the hook tied up to itself, and stabilize our depth, and begin our 50 minute, 13 level ascent to the surface.  Once there, we are careful to avoid the Portuguese Man ‘o Wars that are sailing by in the stiff breeze, with tentacles a’trailing, looking to sting something into submission, like us!

Well that was enough excitement for the day, and we call it, heading in for our last night in Key West.  A light dinner and beers at the Hogfish Cafe, conveniently located right next to our Key West condo!

Monday morning we started our journey back north, but we still had some diving to do! So we headed up to visit our friends at Conch Republic Divers in Tavierner, and get one final tec dive in on the Speigel Grove.  Forty eight minutes of bottom time below 120 ft, followed by forty minutes of staged deco, wrapped up one great weekend of Florida Keys technical diving. 

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Manatee Wrestling & Other Fun Stuff!

Alrighty, caught your eyes there, didn’t we?  No, we are not manatee wrestling, but we are here in Homasassa Florida to go diving with them this weekend.  That, plus visit a few of our favorite rivers, caverns & caves that Northern Florida is known for!

The trip started off on a great start, with me getting to the Philadelphia airport with plenty of time to spare.  That pretty much summarizes the great start portion of the journey for me!  I check my three big bags of gear at the curb, pass through security with no issues, and start down the terminal to my gate.  Hmmmm, it seems a little busy here today….what’s up with that? 

Well here’s what’s up – seems that a teenage airplane passenger using a “Jewish prayer object” caused a misunderstanding that led the captain to divert a Kentucky-bound plane to Philadelphia and prompted a visit from a bomb squad.

According to the Philadelphia Police, a 17-year-old boy on US Airways Express Flight from New York to Louisville was using tefillin, a set of small black boxes containing biblical passages that are attached to leather straps. 

When used in prayer, one box is strapped to the arm while the other box is placed on the head.

“It’s something that the average person is not going to see very often, if ever,” said the FBI spokesman. 

Friggin’ amazing, I guess no one aboard the flight had the Chutzpah to actually ask the young man what he was doing, assuming they are not familiar with this Hebrew practice.  But noooooooooo, we have to sneak around to the crew and they need to pass the word up to the cockpit and the captain needs to get his flight plans diverted to make an emergency landing and a rendesvouz with the Philadelphia Bomb Squad just cause of one religious American citizen.  Cheeeeesh!

OK, so all is good, and we reset Gov. Tom Ridge’s famous Homeland Security Threat Level Status light pole from ‘Red’ back to ‘Orange’ and get on with our lives.  That makes me wonder….do they even have bulbs in the blue and green lenses?  Will we ever see them lit? But I digress………….

By now of course, my flight is late as it gets caught in the queue of delayed flights from Philadelphia. So of course I miss my connection in Atlanta, which on it’s own would not be such a bad thing, except for the fact that I am picking up Dan Leone in Orlando and driving him to the resort!  Our plans were for him to arrive about a half hour before my flight, and come meet me when I landed.  Well I hope he packed a book or two, cause that is clearly not in the cards today!  When I get to Atlanta, the next flight to Orlando is oversold, so no sneaking onto that one.  And, the one after that is also!  Finally I am confirmed on the third flight to Orlando, and scheduled to land at 9:30, only four hours after my original plans.  So, I take a peek out of the big window at the gate, and realize I can see all the way to the next gate…….hmmmm…let’s look again, cause I am sure my view should be blocked by a big ol’ Boeing jet that I should be boarding in a few minutes.  Well no, my first glance was correct…..there is no jet there, cause it hasn’t even arrived yet!  Not looking good for Dan in Orlando, that is for sure!  Finally, an hour later, our plane arrives, we go through the unloading/cleaning/boarding  ritual, and we are off, heading southbound towards the land of Disney.

When I de-plane in Orlando it is after 11:00 and Dan is looking a bit haggard from his extended wait in the airport tavern!  Let’s get my bags and roll I say, and sure enough, there are my bags, heck they have been here and waiting for me for close to 4 hours!  So much for that official airline mantra about no checked bags flying without the passenger who owns them…just more rhetoric designed to appease the public.   We check in to EZ Car Rental, pick up our nice new Ford F-150 pick-em-up truck, and head west to the Homasassa Riverside Resort, our base of operations for the weekend’s activity. 

I pull into the resort and Bubba, the night clerk, hands me my stack of keys for the four rooms we have reserved.  “Hold them horses, pardner” I say, “we are four divers not four rooms!”  Oh no, he says, as he points it out in the reservation book, I have four rooms.  I can see that this argument is not going to go any place positive here at 2:00 a.m., so I say “how about we start small, and I only take one room tonight?”.  OK he says we can do that….I shake my head, collect our keys, and Dan and I go and move in.   Like a good daddy, I spend a couple hours nervously pacing until finally Dave & Natalie McLoughlan safely arrive, and by 3:30 a.m. I have everyone tucked in for the night, power-napping away in preparation for our first full day of diving.

Friday morning comes way too early, but there is no rush (can you imagine me saying that?) case we “own the boat” today, and Carl & Dave, owners of Adventure Dive Center in Crystal River, are as laid back as us!  So we get our gear together, pile into the van, and head up the road to connect with the Adventure Dive Center crew.  We arrive and the banter and joking begins immediately, if I did not know better, I’d swear we were in Indian Valley Scuba-Crystal River!  I love these guys!

So after the introductions, initial sarcasm & general abuse that is part of the IVS tough-diver-love program, we get to the ‘meat’ of the matter (what…did someone mention something about manatee’s tasting just like chicken?).  Whoa, whoa….let’s keep it politically correct here!  Remember Rule #1 of Scuba Diving? Of course we all do – Fill out the waiver!

So, paperwork completed, it’s time to watch the manatee movie, sponsored by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission.  Actually a pretty informative flick, and with some great videography, it prepares our crew for what we are about to see – 1,000 pound sea cows frolicking amongst us, as we dodge the kayak-based manatee nazi’s who’s sole purpose in life is to keep the manatees separated from those that love them the most! 

A short hop over to the boat, and we load up, hear the Cliff Notes version of the Coast Guard safety talk, and motor out into the Crystal River to our first location – Kings Spring.  This site is a little different, as it is a nice deep cavern very well camouflaged in the middle of an otherwise flat and lo-visibility river.  The bottom of the river in this area is 5 to 8 feet deep, and usually murky.  Today was no exception and the viz was around five feet or so in the river.  Two manatee refuge zones are located here, separated by a narrow gap where you can dive or swim to access the cavern entrances.  It’s really, really important to NOT swim into the manatee refuge areas, as they pointed out in the video.  So, I turn around to find the crew, and hmmmmmm…..I am alone here, let me surface and see where they have gotten off to!  Well, is that a manatee over there blowing those bubbles I see on the surface?  Nooooooo, it’s Team IVS, off the beaten path and smack dab in the middle of the refuge!   Psssst!  Hey – get over here!  Hurry!!!  Note to self -navigation might be good thing to emphasize this weekend!

OK, we re-regrouped and swam right over the top of the cavern area. Once you are there, the bottom drops into a rocky hole about 30 ft deep, and then you slide down the side, squeeze between a couple of rocks into a very dark slot, turn left, and viola!  you are inside the cavern!  That wasn’t too scary now, was it? 

Once inside, the cavern opens up a bit and by all standards, while the cavern is not deep, you clearly cannot see natural light from most vantage points once you are inside.  But oh well, who are we to point this discrepancy out?  The hole goes back about 100 ft, dropping to a depth of 48 ft inside.  Water clarity is phenomenal as this is entirely fed by crystal clear spring water.  It’s just dark!  And OK, maybe a little tight, especially if you follow me into some of the side shoots and little holes to see the catfish that like to hang out there!  But that’s all part of a good adventure!

So after our first initial drop into the cavern, we come out and ascend, and let everyone’s heartbeat fall back into a more normal range.  Breathing slows down, and I ask if we’re ready to go back in and actually see the cavern this time?  All answers are ‘Yes’ so we drop down, squeeze back in, and this time everyone is relaxed, and we enjoy cruising around inside, looking at the rock formations, wondering when it actually was that the big rocks we are swimming over fell from the ceiling, and even crawl into some of the catfish holes.  There’s a nice halocline at about 46 ft, where the salt water is mixing with the fresh, and it’s cool to stick your head into it and realize that no matter how hard you try, you can’t focus on anything!

After another half hour of play in and around the cavern, and we swim back out to the boat, taking the official path between the refuge areas this time!   Once there, we spend a little time searching for Dave M’s light in the silty murky bottom, but that official DIR-color black light isn’t giving away it’s position, so after a thorough search, we decide Dave needs a new light from Indian Valley Scuba (preferably yellow or some other bright color!). Cha-ching! “Oooops!  Was that my outside voice?”

Our second location is Three Sisters Springs, and as we motor up to the site, we can see where all the manatees have been hiding!  The water is thick with them, and there are manatees swimming, and resting, and nuzzling the snorkelers, and getting tickled and scratched – all cool!!  Of course, there are quite a few manatee-huggers, under the guise of “informational guides” crusing among us in thier kayaks, ready to give you a quick swat on the head with their paddle should you look menacing in the direction of any of the manatees.  We slip/fall into the water (it’s only four feet deep!) and walk over to the manatees.  A few of the local rocket scientists share their observation with us that our scuba gear might be a bit of an overkill for this depth, but we soldier on.  Everyone gets some great manatee photos, and some nuzzling and tickling, and finally it’s time to head up into the spring.  So we drop into the water, and swim through the narrow entrance to the springs themselves.  It is a very pretty swim, water depth varies from 5 to 8 ft, and the clarity is maybe, oh, 100 ft plus! As we swim we can start to see the sand boils, where the springwater is coming in from below, and the sand above is literally boiling as it tumbles and churns with the force of the water stream passing up from below – pretty darn cool! 

The springs branch off into three offshoots once inside (hmmmm…..maybe there was a reason to call it Three Sisters!) and although relatively small, they are beautiful, with white sandy bottoms, tree lined shores, a sunny day overhead, and lots of little fish and critters to amuse and entertain us.  And as we start to get a little bored with all that, here come the manatees – the union meeting must be over, cause they are starting to pile in!  First one, perhaps a scout, then here comes mom and a baby!  Very cool, very tolerant of us, very photogenic! Our morning is complete!

So back on board, we motor back to the dock, unload, and prepare for this afternoons dive on the Rainbow River.  But we have time for lunch, and the boys at Adventure Dive Center recommend the Taste of Philly Sub & Cheesesteak Shop across the street.  OK…..we are 1,000 miles from home, and all our zip codes start with 19xxx, so we are quite skeptical as to the authenticity of our sandwich experience.  Well one step inside the shop, and we think we have been transported right back to 9th & Passyunk in South Philly!  The owners fit the mold to a “T”, including the look, accent and mannerisms that you’ll experience at Pat’s or Geno’s – not to mention understanding what “wit” and witout” mean!  Needless to say, our sandwiches are absoutely delicious, and we have a new spot to recommend to everyone passing through Crystal River, FL!  

So we say our goodbyes, snap a few memory photos outside the shop, and drive up to meet Dave and the boat at K. P. Hole, the launching site for our Rainbow River drift dive.  Heading upstream towards the headwaters, the river is just beautiful, with lush woods, a few nice homes, and water as clear as can be flowing from the springs – as you might imagine when you get 400-600 million gallons a day of spring water coming up from deep inside the earth!  We stop just short of the end of navigable waters, and drop in at 5:30 p.m. for what is about to quickly become a night drift dive!  Gotta love the adventure – let’s do a first time drift dive for some of our party, in a new location they have never dove before, at night!  Like they say in the Guiness commercials – Brilliant!

 Well the dive turns out to be just fantastic and we see all sorts of cool things, including alligator gar, turtles, bass, catfish, even a couple of wild otters swimming with us – an hour and 10 minutes of drifting, cruising, up, down, around, just all great – OK, maybe almost all great, as this body of water has somehow managed to snatch another one of Dave M’s dive lights – those things must have magnets in them, set for the bottom of Florida’s waterways!  What a way to wrap up our first day of diving!  By the time we get back to the condo, Dan crashes for the night, Dave & Natalie head out for a quick snack at the restaurant, and I sit down to type this blog!  Such dedication, yes, I know!

Now it’s Saturday, and we have a surprise for our divers! In lieu of heading up to one of the springs today, we are going to have an opportunity to drift dive down the Silver River.  This river is totally primitive, completely surrounded by untouched forest preserves, and chock full of really cool critters above and below the water!  No one except Adventure Dive Center dives this river, and they only got the idea after years of running bird watching and nature lover tours on this untouched piece of Florida’s natural beauty.  The river can only be dove in January and February, cause during these two cooler months, most of the alligators and water snakes are in some state of hibernation, and unwanted underwater animal encounters are less likely!  How’s that for Indian Valley Scuba taking our divers safety and well being to heart?

So we head up, and it’s almost a two hour run to Ocala where we’ll launch for the river dive.  We load up the boat with gear, supplies, food, and beverages, and start the journey upstream against some really strong current.  The river is full of sunken logs and half-submerged logs and other hazards to navigation, and our captain is still learning the ropes, as he demonstrates with a few unintended 180 degree turns as a result of putting the boat a little too far into a turn for the current we are running against.  Oh well, we manage to get ourselves turned around each time, and the trip upriver is a photographers dream come true, with Anhinga, Cormorants, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Ibis birds out and about, wild Rhesus monkeys hanging from the trees, turtles of all sorts, and some really nice large American alligators sunning themselves on some of the half-submerged logs in the river – wait…did these guys not get the memo about it being hibernation season until February???

Our two dives there are great, with the current varying from mild to ripping as we go along, and some really cool buried underwater tree entanglement/death traps that we manage to avoid as we cruise along.  Armored catfish up to 30″ long are all over (those are Plecostomus to our aquarists), and the alligator gar and pickerel really added some nice new sightings to our fish list.  Lunch on board included Cheetoh’s and canned sardines, either packed in soybean oil or cajun style ( those who know me will be able to pick the flavor I chose!), beverages, and some good joke telling with our new friends Shane Rickman and Keith Fisher, a couple of good ol’ boys from Arkansas, and a local cracker, Capt. Jason Scott.  After that we pulled the boat, and headed over to Ken’s Winghouse, a Florida version of Hooters, complete with scantily clad waitstaff and icy cold brewskies – I’m thinking what more could we ask for?  (Natalie was rolling her eyes when I brought that up – go figure!)

And talk about small worlds..while I am eating my cell rings and it is none other than our Vandenberg connection, Joe Weatherby!  And he’s calling cause he just got to Crystal River and wanted to know who we would recommend going out to see Manatees with!  Well how much easier can this get, I hand the phone to Dave Mittelstadt, and Adventure Dive Center suddenly has a charter for Sunday! 

Sunday we opted to visit two of the more unique springs from our original itinerary – Blue Grotto and Devlis Den.  Blue Grotto is our first stop, and we check in, fill out waivers, and watch the informative (but frightening) video about diving the site.  Needless to say, this sorta freaks out part of our party, so by the time we are waterside,  it is touch and go whether to dive or not.  Thankfully we all agree to go in and check it out (liek the hundred or so other lemmings there that day) and turns out that it is not as scary as it was made to sound.  So we do the shallow loop, then the deep one, and work on our buoyancy skills, and have a nice dive.  After our first loop around the bottom, we head back towards the entry area, and Dan signals to me that he is low on air, so he is going up.  OK I signal back, and continue to work with Natalie on her hovering and bubble management, which is going great!  So we pop up and I see Dan hightailing up the stairs back to our staging area – strange, I think!  So I spend another ten minutes or so in the water with Dave as he is looking for a dive knife that he found (if you’re keeping score that is two lights lost, one knife found, for a minus one score so far for the weekend) but that he somehow dropped out of his BC pocket (making the score minus three).  So we look around, come up empty handed, and I take one last loop around the bottom of the cavern, and we surface.  Well there’s our friend Dan, standing at the dock, ready to go diving with a fresh new tank!  ‘Sup, I ask, and he says he’s ready to see the rest of the cavern.  Uhhhhh Dan, sorry to diappoint, but that was it – in spite of the video and the owner’s long explanation about the deep dark place, we have just seen it all.  Talk about disappointed, he was sure there saw more to see down there, and didn’t want to be low on air while exploring it!  Sorry!   And to add salt to the collective wounds, while Dave and I were down searching for Dave’s newly found (and newly lost) knife, Natalie reports that some kid taking a class came up and was proud as a peacock ’cause on his checkout dive he found a really cool knife!   

So anyhow, we got over all that, and we throw the gear in the car, jump in, still wearing our wetsuits, and drive about a mile down the road and across the street to Devils Den.  This is a really cool place if you have never dove it, with a subterranean chamber that is spring fed, and only accessible by your choice of either rappeling down through a small hole in the ceiling, or taking the more conventional approach, walking down the stairs.  We opted for the conventional approach today, and geared up and walked on down into the cavern.  The water is of course perfectly crystal clear, with depths to about 50 ft.  The entry point is a platform set on a pile of rocks that fell from the ceiling (making one wonder if more are due to fall today!) and the dive is a complete circle around the perimeter, with swim-thru’s, crawl-thru’s and just lots of neat things to explore and see.  A couple of large catfish patrol the place, there are some nice signs complete with the Grim Reaper and “DANGER OF DEATH IF YOU PASS THIS SIGN” messages – good guidelines to follow!  A few turtles, some smaller fish living in fear of the big catfish, and some barred-off entrances to the back cave areas that are really tight to squeeze through (whoops…was that my outside voice again?).  All in all a neat dive, and we spent another hour and twenty minutes there enjoying it and wrapping up a nice weekend of very different diving.

Driving home we stopped at Cody’s Steakhouse, and what a fine time we enjoyed over a great steak dinner and a super waitress.  Jokes were flowing, the laughter never stopped, and boy were those 32 oz beers all around good!  We ended with a great chocolate brownie sundae that fed four – talk about size matters!  Great cap on a great day with great friends!  From there it was back, a few hours for the gear to drip dry, pack up and head to the airport for our respective rides home.  Great trip, we’ll be back next year!