My SCUBA log book was starting to get pretty full, mostly with entries of dives in the fresh water springs and rivers around my home of Ocala, in north central Florida. Then, in the early 1970s, you could readily access spring heads for diving and snorkeling. Today, some of the places I dived are either on private property or are managed by the State of Florida and closed to diving. Then, the boat traffic was virtually non-existent except on holidays or summer weekends, compared to the rafts of boats crowding every navigable waterway and spring head in the state today. What used to be quiet, pristine and out-of-the-way spots have turned into a seething mass of humanity, with all the attendant dangers to manatees and pollution of the environment. And noise. But I won’t get on my soapbox about that at this juncture.
The moral to this little tale of lost-woman-in-an-underwater-cave-at-night is: oh gee, pick one. Don’t cave dive if you aren’t a certified cave diver? Or how about: familiarize yourself with the intended night dive location during the day before you embark on your FIRST ever night dive? Or: bring your very OWN waterproof flashlight?
Well, I was actually quite familiar, I thought, with the main spring at Crystal River. This has hosted likely thousands of neophyte SCUBA divers through the years as a popular spot for “open water” checkout dives, mostly for those who can’t afford the time or expense of a trip to a tropical marine environment to complete their basic certification. What, me worry?
My mom and step-father had a little condo with a boat slip on King’s Bay, an offshoot of Crystal River located just a couple of minutes by boat from the main spring. They had both a small boat (either a 16 foot Jon boat or a 16 Boston Whaler, depending on the year) as well as a larger boat that they took down river into the Gulf of Mexico. We kids would spend weekends with our folks, typically out on the big boat, fishing in the Gulf. Over several years we became quite familiar with Crystal River and its byways, creeks and spring heads. Plus, our step-father had been boating out of Crystal River for over many years, and knew this section of the coast intimately from Yankeetown to Homosassa.
I had dived the main spring at Crystal River several times, always during the day. Technically, it is considered a cavern, not a cave, in that there is no truly enclosed cave portion. But that doesn’t mean a diver can’t get disoriented (like, um, at night, with no flashlight?) and manage to (stupidly) swim up into a chimney-like formation, get jammed, be unable to reach down to the knife strapped to the inside of her leg and bang on her tank to call for help.
I was stuck up in that chimney like a sausage. Couldn’t go up. Couldn’t go down. (Which was up anyway?) I could twist at little, but kept banging my head and tank on rock. Wondered at what point my still-youthful life was going to go flashing by my mind’s eye. Tried to figure out how I’d gotten in here in the first damn place. Tried not to breathe so damn fast- couldn’t afford to hyper-ventilate at this point.
I remembered some story about how people lost in a (dry) cave, without flashlights, had managed to get out by keeping one hand on a side wall and just kept walking. I was reaching out to try to figure out which part of my prison was a side when I felt a hand clamp on my calf. My dive buddy, S, to the rescue. Of course it was him. After all, we were the only two humans in the spring head that weekday night in the month of November. The only two people who had anchored the Jon boat at the grassy edge of the spring, about 9:00 pm: who had flipped overboard backwards from opposite sides of the boat and finned over the eel grass to the black edge of the gaping spring, demarked by the force of the water from below pushing against our facemasks and regulator mouthpieces.
I forgot the shock of the first rush of cold water pouring into my wetsuit as we floated about 20 feet below the surface of the spring. S had turned off the only underwater flashlight we had between us, letting our eyes become accustomed to the starlight which, in the gin-clear water, illuminated the limestone walls of the spring for 20 or more feet down. We floated for a few more minutes and I remember being awed by the sensation of being suspended between the water and the stars. When I rolled on my back, held my breath and gazed upward, there was absolutely no indication of where the surface of the water ended and the air began. It was a feeling somewhere between falling and rising, but I wasn’t disoriented or dizzy. Just amazed.
S turned on his flashlight and we floated down some 45 feet to the sand and began to slowly swim around the walls of the spring, ducking in and around broken columns of limestone, always ending back in the center of the spring, floating. We had all the bottom time in the world, as we wouldn’t even reach 60 feet of depth on this dive, so we turned somersaults in mid-water and played with the glow sticks that S had brought along.
We surfaced to decide if we were ready to leave or stay a bit longer, and noticed it had started to sprinkle rain. I asked if we could do one more circle of the spring and S agreed. His flashlight provided ample illumination for me to clearly see S’s shape just ahead of me, and because we hadn’t kicked up sand from the spring bottom, the water was still very clear. I must have been lulled into a false sense of security or else the cold was seeping into my brain, because I deliberately hung back from S as he swam from behind a limestone column. I recall turning left, going up and following what I thought was a slightly different route to go around the same column. Next thing I knew I was in the dark, alone, banging my head and tank and in a jam. Literally.
I was sure my heart was going to quit working, it was thumping so hard. It didn’t slow down a bit when S patted my calf with what I interpreted as a “relax, I’m here” gesture. I remember feeling the water move around me and then, of all things, there was his face mask glinting a few inches from mine. He shined his flashlight under his mask to light his face and gave me the OK sign, which I returned quickly, banging my elbow painfully on rock. He craned his neck forward and peered into my face, cocked his head sideways and I saw his other hand come up in a “so-so” gesture. Leave it to S to tease me at a moment like this. I just hung there in the water, giving him an emphatic OK sign. I wanted to scream at him to quit messing around to get me the hell out of here. Which he promptly did, by placing a hand on each of my shoulders and shoving me straight down – apparently with enough force that I missed the walls and came squirting backwards out into the open spring, easily clearing the side wall of limestone. I let my body complete the somersault motion, and I remember floating there, limp, trying to get my heart rate down.
S finned up to me and, shining the flashlight between us so that neither of us was blinded, he looked into my mask again, as if to say “Well, are you OK or what?” I gave the OK sign and shakily rubbed the top of his wetsuit hood as if to say “Good Boy”.
We ended the dive by breaking open a couple of glow sticks, watching the little green firefly-like lights spread out in a random pattern between us and the stars and the surface of the water, which I could clearly discern because of the pattern that the rain was making on the water’s surface.
After that experience, I decided that I would limit my night diving to open water. No caves, no caverns, no wrecks, no swim-throughs. Nothing overhead! But of course I couldn’t have known then that I might, just, be tempted to ratchet up my now well-developed and hard-won claustrophobia with a daring night dive. But that was a few years in the offing. First, I had to experience a few more heart-racing moments underwater, like a case of the bends and life-threatening panic at 75 feet in a roaring current.