It’s inevitable, everybody has a bad day. If you are in the office or at home, most people shrug it off. Maybe try to relax when it’s over with a pint or glass of wine, and look forward knowing that tomorrow will be better. What if that bad day doesn’t involve meetings in the office or chores at home, but instead being underwater in a cave? This is not the kind of environment where one can just dismiss the uneasiness and get on with it. Here, a bad day can lead to a cascade of mistakes and poor decisions that will potentially make the situation worse. As such, knowing when to call the dive is just as important skill as all of the others. In fact, one could argue, the most important of them all.
To date, I have been on a few hundred cave dives. I have dived at night, in low to zero visibility, in tight, silty places, scooting through extremely high flow, while managing stages, extra bottles, and scooters. Yet I still have off days. And I can guarantee you, when I do, I am just as hard on myself as anyone. I hold Tech 1/Cave 2 certifications through GUE. Anyone familiar with these courses, or the GUE training style in general, know the rigor of the curriculum. I suppose it could be easy to get a bit complacent and think after a few years of diving the cave systems in the area, you simply do not have a bad day. You would be wrong.
Recently, I was planning a night dive with Andy and a good friend of ours. The day had been like any other. I would not have considered feeling anything but excitement at any moment leading up to the dive. We signed into Ginnie Springs like we always do. Said “hello” to a few friends, and set off to find a parking spot. Once at the spring, we unloaded gear, put bottles and scooters in the water, and got in our dry suits . . . all was right with the world. We were about to go cave diving!
We made our way into the water to pick up stages and scooters, and went through the GUE EDGE. This is our standard pre-dive check list to make sure our team has the required gear and are familiar with the dive we were about to do, essentially it makes sure everyone is on the same page. During the EDGE I remember my mind started to wander. This isn’t strange, as this sometimes happens. I had been dealing with the typical stressors of life outside of the water, and for some reason, one in particular shot into my head. I sat with the thought a few seconds before shaking it off and getting back to the task at hand.
I consider myself a very proficient diver at my level of training. GUE has prepared me for a lot of scenarios that could/will happen on a normal dive, or during the proverbial “shit hits the fan” dive. That said, aside from skill set, diving has a huge mental component to it. As we scooted down the run, getting any last-minute issues sorted, I checked in with myself to make sure I had it together. We were about to do a two-hour dive and I needed to be strong and present for my team. However, regardless of what I told myself, things were just off. My suit felt tighter than usual, my bottles were hanging off my left side all wrong, and the butterflies in my stomach turned into rocks. This was not going to go well. Yet somehow, I felt confident that if I could just get in the cave I would feel better.
As our team of three arrived at the top of Devil’s Ear, our friend leading the dive gave the “okay” sign with his light. Both Andy and I answered back. I was certainly “okay” at that particular moment, but was still a bit unsure. For the dive, I was supposed to be second and Andy was bringing up the rear. With the flow up just a bit in the Ear, our friend turned his scooter up and easily made it into the mouth of the cave. As I descended down, my heart was already pounding in my ears, and I felt like I was already breathing fast. What the hell was wrong with me? I have been in Ginnie over a hundred times. One of my favorite things is scooting under the log and swiftly into the opening of this cave. I love this cave! So, what in the world was my problem? I barely made it past the log before turning the nose of my scooter upward and returning to the surface. When I got to the surface, I thought my mask had broken, so I quickly took it off. Turns out, my mask was in good working order. Andy broke the water to ask if I was okay. I told him I was, and that I thought I was having an issue with my mask. Nonetheless, I headed below for attempt number two. Similar to the first, I pointed the nose of my scooter toward the log and increased the speed. This time I got further toward the entrance until my brain came to a screeching halt. With 100% clarity, I could hear my own voice in my head simply say, “not today,” and I quickly retreated to the surface once again. Andy came up for a second time and asked what was wrong. He looked at me and said “we have a man in the cave, you’re safely on the surface, make a decision.” I get it. When there is a team member waiting in the cave, and you are dealing with something above the water, there is no time for small talk. I looked at Andy and told him today was not my day for a cave dive. He gave nod and off he went on the dive.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t mentally beat myself up for a few minutes. I had been through that opening so many times, I know it like the back of my hand. I could close my eyes and see the dive play out in my head: drop the oxygen bottles at the gold line, travel through the gallery toward the lips, swing wide and set up for the pinch through the bedding plan to ensure the manifold and valves didn’t hit and the stages and scooter slid past cleanly past the restriction. Then what was I doing on the surface recovering from a panic attack and crying? It didn’t matter. What did matter, was that I did not belong inside of that cave, or any cave at that particular time. The best thing I could do for my team was remain on the surface until they were on done. My mind got the best of me. There was no way it was letting go of the troubles that were plaguing me above the water just because I wanted to go cave diving.
Shortly after the tears had stopped, I realized that Andy had the only truck key in the pocket of his dry suit. Since I had a heated vest, battery pack, and wing, I could still make the most of the situation and remain on the surface floating, star gazing, looking at fish, turtles, and the other “wildlife” that made their way into the run at that time of night. Although not as quiet as in the tunnels beneath the Sante Fe River, I was still in the water. That would be good enough for me.
As my teammates finished the dive and made their way to the surface, they were okay with the fact that today, or tonight as it were, was not my night to be in a cave. They filled me in on the dive, and some favorite spots that they had visited. I was definitely still a bit upset that I was not able to go with them, but knew that I would always have another opportunity tomorrow because of the decision I made to sit that dive out.
Regardless of training level, some days we just have to know when to call the dive. And sometimes, we have to know to call the dive before it even begins. Pushing yourself or a teammate into an extreme environment when you are physically and/or mentally unable to handle it doesn’t do anyone any good. We cave dive because we love it. In the past, I have found peace in a cave when I couldn’t find it anywhere else. I never want to turn my underwater Temple of Zen into a final resting place because I wasn’t comfortable knowing when to say when.
Interestingly, 12 hours after I struggled at the Ear I was scooting a mile into Manatee in some of the highest flow I have ever experienced, with dark walls that swallow light, and low visibility. So, what changed in within just a few hours? My mindset. The Manatee dive was similar to the dive we planned the night before. A single stage scooting up the main line. However, unlike the previous dive, I was completely relaxed as I navigated my XK up and down the sand dunes.
Furthermore, the very next weekend Andy and I were back at Ginnie. During the week, I thought a lot about the attempt on Friday night. Following our usual routine, we got to the spring and unloaded gear. We took our time putting bottles and scooters in the water and getting into our dry suits. I lead the GUE EDGE, as I would also be leading the dive. We planned to jump off the main line toward Hill 400 and explore the Sherwood Split area. The scoot down the run was interesting due to the high volume of tubers and snorkelers. We made it to the Ear with ease. This time I signaled Andy that I was “okay” and ready to start the dive with no apprehension at all. We dumped our wings and headed into the cave mouth smoothly. It turned out that we would have one of my favorite dives that day into an area that was low and tight, some of my preferred types of cave to navigate. Fortunately, we captured the dive on video.