It was Sunday morning at 7:30am and we were heading South on 75 towards Hudson Grotto, north of Tampa. I was not excited. In fact I really just wanted to get this day over with. We would be spending a long hot day diving and then have a 2.5 hour drive north back to high springs.
When we first talked to Kirill about the logistics of where the dive sites would be during class, and he mentioned the possibility of being at Hudson grotto, I was less than thrilled about the idea. I heard that Hudson was a pretty nasty place to dive. I heard that the water smelled like rotten eggs, there was quite a lot of algae and the visibility could be just a few feet. I also heard that it was full of old cars and junk at the bottom, and once you were down there, it was pitch black and spooky. None of that sounded fun and I wouldn’t have chosen to dive there.
As we got closer to the dive site, it was as if we were driving into a neighborhood. We turned off a small highway past a cremation place and it looked like we were heading towards a junk yard. The road was fairly overgrown on both sides with weeds and other flora. The GPS said we had arrived and I looked to my left to see what looked like a pond. My first thought was “We are seriously diving in this?” We arrived just after Per, Kirill and Lauren and had our morning greeting. Everyone had coffee in hand.
Hudson is owned (or at least operated by) Scuba West. The shop has been around for a while and has seen some ownership changes over the years. It’s your basic scuba shop that mostly caters to open water divers and I believe at one point they would train commercial divers as well as public safety divers. We joked about doing our tech dives in the training pool instead of Hudson grotto because we could actually see more than a few feet in the pool. Scuba west also had one of those BOB scooter things that vacation divers use, sitting on the shop floor. So of course we talked Kirill into getting inside it. “For today’s tech dives we will be using the BOB!” we joked. It even had a spear gun in a holster on the side. Clearly that would be way more fun.
After checking in with Scuba West, Kirill did the standard dive site briefing since none of us had ever been there. The sinkhole is across a road from the dive shop. There is a small parking lot behind a gate to the west of the sink and this is the place that you would want to park if you can. Directly beside the sink and to the North, there is a covered pavilion and some tables for setting gear up on. There is also a small floating dock. We walked out on to the floating dock as Kirill gave us more information about the site. A typical sinkhole and it looked to be about 75 yards in diameter. Sure enough it smelled like rotten eggs, and there was algae all over the surface. You couldn’t see more then a few feet into the water. Because the site is used for training, there are lots of barrels floating on the surface that are holding up platforms and various other stuff (a boat maybe?). The sink is over 100 feet deep and does have a small cave at the bottom but apparently it’s so bad that nobody really wants to explore it.
After the dive site briefing, Kirill discussed the dive plan including the scenarios we would be running. We would be doing a series of simulated wreck dives using the 100 foot platform and the line tied to the barrel as our anchor line. We were told that the water is brackish and tidal, with noticeable current. At around 50-70 feet deep there is a layer of H2S (hydrogen sulfide) that looks like fog as you go through it. Below that the water is fairly cold and clear but since no ambient light penetrates the H2S layer, it’s pitch black. As Kirill described what to expect, I was getting pretty anxious and I could see Tina was not having fun either. To add to her anxiety, she didn’t get hit with a mask failure at blue grotto, so she felt like it was imminent. I reassured her that she would be fine but she was nervous about it none the less. Way back in the early days of PADI open water (maybe around dive number 15 or so, Tina had a bad experience with a broken mask. She literally put her fingers through the lens trying to push the mask on her face because it was leaking, while sitting on a platform 25 feet deep. That incident has always stuck with her. But the reality is that she does just fine with no mask on and she has worked very hard to get over that terrifying nearly scuba ending incident.
It was only 9am but getting hot and we didn’t really have much shade because a larger group of divers already had the pavilion. We did our best to stay cool. I grabbed some ice from the cooler and put it in a plastic bag. We passed the bag around holding it on our necks and heads as Kirill talked, and that really helped. He made short work of the lecture and soon it was time to gear up. Fortunately the pavilion was less occupied and we were all able to grab a picnic table under it to get out of the sun. We shuttled the gear from the trucks to the pavilion and began getting ready. You can be assured that I put defog on my backup mask this time because I wasn’t convinced that my “faulty” masks weren’t just a fluke.
Once we were all in our gear it was time to get wet. Tina went first and did a giant stride off the dock, swam over to where we had stashed our aluminum 80 50% deco bottles, and clipped hers to her side. I was next and did the same, followed shortly by Per. I remember thinking that even the water was hot. It was probably in the mid 80’s but was just enough to cool you down if you took your hood off. When I cleaned my mask and put my face under the water I was disappointed; but not surprised to see that the visibility was still just as bad as I had observed from the surface. I couldn’t see my fins on my feet. I believe Tina ran the GUE EDGE and when it was over, we all kicked out to the barrel where the 100 foot platform was. Kirill knew we were nervous. At least I was. I can’t speak for Per but I know Tina was also.
We started our descent. For the past several days I built this monster up in my head of what this moment would be like. Per, myself and Tina stayed in tight formation around the line without touching it. We descended slowly as the ambient light faded away. There were various other lines tied into the line we were descending on. One set of lines made a V at about 40 feet. As we got closer to the V, Kirill was below us and swam under it and flipped over completely heads up and popped his head out between the lines, staring upwards at us while spreading the them with his hands in dramatic fashion, as you would do if you were trying to scare a bunch of little kids on halloween night by jumping out from behind a bush. I swear if he hadn’t had a reg in his mouth his tongue would have been out and he would have made a “Blahhhh” sound. I laughed. It was a funny site and from there I started to relax.
I remember looking at my depth gauge as we began to enter the layer of H2S. It started around 60 feet deep, and it was like driving into a fog bank. We all stayed close. As we descended deeper I got more relaxed (or narced). Quite opposite from the feeling that I expected. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised though, this wasn’t the first time Tina or I had dove in conditions similar to this. We did our PADI open water in a fresh water lake called Mt. Storm in West Virginia, and this water reminded me very much of the dive to the “90 foot” platform as it was called, where we would go quite frequently. Although we are spoiled now by diving in the springs as much as we do.
Soon the the platform was in view and I was pretty happy to be in the cool water at the bottom. Actually as spooky as it was, I was really enjoying the dive. I knew we were about to get hammered with failures but I didn’t care. We began our simulated wreck dive by tying our reel off near the up line and went off exploring into the pitch blackness. Once we were just a few the platform quickly melted away as we swam from it. I could just make out the bottom of the sink, which was beyond our max operating depth of 100 ft (MOD). It was like we were in outer space. Our lights light up the tiny particles floating around. There was no other visual reference there then the thin line from our reel and my two dive buddies. I glanced back and could see the line extending off away towards the platform but it vanished into the inky blackness. We kept swimming off into an unknown direction. Soon we came to the remains of an old bus or car or something. Our planned dive time was up and we turned the dive. On the way back, of course we got equipment failures. We worked much better as a team and managed the failures as best as we could. Soon we were back at the up line and began our ascent. We got in formation around the line and I’m pretty sure we were sharing gas, but I don’t remember who was on the gas share. Once we reached our first deco stop, we switched to our 50% and that went pretty well.
We had some more failures but managed to ascend and hit the stops all the way back to the surface. One of the most interesting things about the ascent and descent was the tidal current that you could feel between 40 and 80 feet. You would literally be swaying back and forth while looking at the up line. We did a lot of position changes to stay shoulder to shoulder on the ascent. The tidal current would swing you from one side the the line to the next. It was wild.
We were definitely working better as a team and everyone had relaxed quite a bit. Kirill did his debrief telling us what we needed to fix and do better with. Of course we had lots to improve on. And we waited for about 30 minutes to begin our second dive. While on the surface Kirill told us some of the history of Hudson grotto and informed us that the grotto was once clear water. It was still brackish but not nearly as nasty as it is today. The increased water usage has reduced the outflow of springs like the ones connected to Hudson Grotto and the water quality has declined a lot over the last decade. It’s just sad.
For our next dive we would de exactly the same but with a different leader. I believe Per led this dive. Somehow we managed to find the same exact bus but had a different set of failures. The ascent went basically the same except that around 30 feet, suddenly we each had mask failures. Tina finally had to give up her mask. Of course she managed it just fine. Then at 20 feet as we were all on backup masks, I had a second mask failure. So for the last 20 feet of the ascent I got to do it blind. I’m actually perfectly happy without a mask and my dive buddies took good care of me as we made a nice slow ascent to the surface, including a 10ft stop for whatever deco we had.
The debrief was much of the same as the previous one. We still had to work on things, trim, the ascent speed, some buoyancy things on the bottom, etc. It was all a really good learning experience. At this point it was getting pretty late in the day and the debrief was long enough that I began to have hope that this was the last dive of the day. But then Kirill said we had one more and I was fairly over it.
Again we descended into the inky blackness, and again we did our dive. I was leading this last one and was ready for the day to be over. Failures quickly came and we managed them the best we could. Still making mistakes of course. Kirill is really good at manipulating the situation to make a good lessons learned. We did our ascent with more failures and lessons and made it to the surface. Kirill debriefed us and we made our way out of the water. I was relieved to be done but actually liked Hudson a lot. I don’t know what it is but it was a pretty neat place to dive. It’s not for the faint of heart but I would go back.
We got our gear packed up quickly and had some water. Everyone got some sun on their faces and we all looked a little red. I had a secret reward stashed in the yeti cooler to share with everyone. A pair of ice cream snickers, which amazingly lasted the entire day in the hot truck. Tina, myself, Per and Lauren took turns taking chunks of the ice cream. It was delicious and well earned. Next we loaded the truck, said good by to Per, Kirill and Lauren, and hit the road back to high springs. Finally the day was over and we were half way through Tech 1.
It was nearly 7pm by the time we got back to High Springs and we were starving. On the way we called in a takeout order at the Great Outdoors and picked it up on the way through town. I had to work in the morning, so the plan was to get to bed early and and drive from High Springs to Orlando with enough time for us to be home by around 7am. And It was probably 8 or so by the time we finally made it back to the house. When we got into the house we let the dogs out to and noticed that Marley, our completely blind, 14 year old female golden was acting strange. It had likely been storming all day and she doesn’t do well with thunderstorms at all. Marley has a history of freaking out during a storm but nothing we would be concerned about. Then we noticed some blood on the kitchen floor and began to really worry. I started to investigate and found that she had chewed the corrugated metal dryer vent hose the shreds. There was a lot of blood. When I showed Tina, she and I were understanabley freaked out, because we don’t know if she had swallowed some of the metal shards. My worry was that the blood was from her stomach or that she had sliced her neck or paw or something.
After looking Marley over, and collecting ourselves, we were able to get her to eat and drink. This was a good indication that she didn’t have a bunch of sharp metal in her stomach. Once we began to piece the day together, and after I looked at weather history maps, I realized that there had been a terrible storm. Marley most likely got upset and trapped herself beside the washer and the wall. She took it out on the dryer vent, sliced her mouth up and splattered blood everywhere. We looked in her mouth with the dive light and noticed that her tongue and gums were pretty cut up, but nothing that required stitches or anything that was still bleeding. So although it looked pretty awful, the good news is that the blood seemed to be just form her mouth. And because mouths tend to bleed a lot it made it look like a crime scene. Fortunately the mouth seems to heal quickly as well.
We cleaned the blood up, and watched Marley the rest of the evening, finally being able to sit down and eat our cold food from Great Outdoors at well past 10pm. It was a long day and we were pretty exhausted, but glad the was over and most of all, glad our pup was ok.