Our First Real Cave Dive-Manatee Springs Via Friedman Sink

It’s been just about 6 months since Cave 2 and we have been busy diving as much as we can. Tina and I have spent a fair amount of time exploring  a little bit of Madison, a lot of Peacock, and a lot of Ginnie springs. We pretty much try a different dive or try to see something new every time we go somewhere.   However, for the most part, except for the added task loading of an extra few bottles and some navigation, the diving has been fairly recreational in the grand scheme of things.

Manatee Springs Cave Map

When I first started diving, and someone mentioned cave diving, I imagined it to be dark and scary, with big monsters around every corner. I imagined small, cramped restrictions with little to no visibility.  All of the cave diving we have done so far has been just the opposite. We have had an amazing experience exploring  big rooms, tunnels, great visibility, the occasional little wisp of silt will get kicked up but not more than that.  Sure there have been some small silty restrictions but we made sure to have good buoyancy control to keep from blowing out the visibility.  We never experienced true near zero visibility in a cave before.    It’s not something anyone really wants, but it can, and will happen eventually. That’s why we train so much for zero visibility exits, and touch contact. Today however, we were in for something a little different.

As we have been diving we have also been learning and growing; one small bite at a time, the dives have gotten just a little bit more challenging. Maybe we will add more navigation, or maybe we will go just a little bit further. Some days we take small bites and others like today, we would take a big bite.

We’ve not gotten a chance to catch a dive with Meredith of www.wetrocksdiving.com much since Cave 2.  Mer was our Fundies and Cave 1 instructor and she interned in our Cave 2 class.  So who we are as divers, is for the most part, a direct result of her patience and instruction.  So anytime we get to dive with her is a real treat.

After a flurry of texts over the past few days, and a nice dinner and some catch up beers, at Great Outdoors, a plan was hatched to go for dive in Manatee.  Mer wanted to show us some of her favorite parts of the cave and we had not had a chance to dive Manatee cave yet.  Normally the swimming in Manatee from the main entrance called Catfish Hotel is pretty tough. The flow is high, there are a lot of depth changes, and there isn’t much to pull and glide on in the cave. Most people recommend using a scooter there. However since we are not DPV cave certified, we have to do it the old fashioned way (kicking like hell).

The idea of diving new cave for us is always appealing. Every new thing we do just adds a little bit more in the experience bank.  So we all decided that a dive in Friedmans sink, which is a thousand or so  feet upstream from catfish hotel, would be a good idea.

We met at the entrance to Manatee Springs State park, at around 8am, and got all signed in. About that time a storm rolled in and inundated us with torrential rain for the next half hour our so.  We drove down to the headsprings parking lot (Manatee,  and a short walk away  Catfish Hotel sink) and waited the storm out.  Manatee cave tends to be better when the river is up. It cuts the flow down. A flooding river effectively reduced the flow by creating a hydrostatic head. Once the rain stopped we walked down to Manatee and Catfish to observe the water level. It was up some, but not too much.

Next we went to Friedman Sink by driving up towards the park entrance. Friedman Sink is a pretty small and shallow sinkhole in the middle of the woods, located a few hundred yards off of a service road. There are no bathrooms, and no amenities except for a small gear table by the sink. It’s literally a hole in the woods.    The rain bands kept coming through as we unloaded gear and hauled our deco and stage bottles to the edge of the sink. The fact that I couldn’t see the the bottom of the sink didn’t really register in my head at this point, nor did the fact that I was going to go scuba diving in this hole.

All the stage and deco bottles

We spent a few mins reviewing the dive plan, going over the map and Mer gave us beta on the entrance before we geared up. The entrance to Friedman sink starts in about 10 feet of depth and it’s a tube that goes maybe another 10 feet and opens up into a large dome room.  The tube was described to us as being a restriction big enough to get into but we may have to lower stages in.   In my head I imagined a clear spring fed pond with a hole in the bottom that we would be going into…not so much.

Once we were in the water, Mer went back over the dive plan, we did our gear checks, grabbed our stages and deco gas, and clipped them off.  The water was full of leaf litter, sticks and debris. You couldn’t see your hand if you put it under water more than a few inches. Plus the water had a nice sulfur smell to it .

The visibility at the surface was so bad that I had to be right next to Mer and Tina to do the bubble checks.  Mer pointed out that the line into the cave was tied to a log in open water about 6 inches below the surface.  She said, the hole we are going in is right below her and starts at around 10 feet deep. However we could hardly see the line in the water just a few inches below the surface, let alone the actual hole.

Cross-section view of Friedman sink.

Once we were all kitted up, and the dive plan was finalized, it was time to go.  Mer went first.  She submerged under the water and disappeared. Next was Tina’s turn. She was pretty anxious and it took her a few times to talk her self into going under water (understandably). We were about to follow a thin line into a hole in the bottom of this…mess. Finally Tina worked up enough nerve to go down. And she also disappeared. I knew she was in the cave when I no longer saw bubbles.

Our route, marked in red.

Now it was my turn. I grabbed the line with my right hand and dumped the gas from my wing with my left. I began to sink head first as my hand slowly slid along the line. This kind of thing is a commitment in your head. You just have to tell yourself that it’s going to be ok. The visibility was zero. I had the line and could feel it moving through my hands so I knew I was headed Into the cave. After a few feet down, I could feel my tanks banging so I knew I was now in the restriction. I could actually see a faint glow of my light but that was it. To describe what I saw, would be like taking a big bucket filled with cold chunky beef stew, throw in some sticks and leaves, mix some sand in, put a reg and mask on; and then have someone lower you into that bucket headfirst. That’s what it was like.

I continued down into the hole and slowly the visibility started to clear enough to wiggle past the rocks that were keeping me from going further in my current orientation. Then I finally popped into a dome room, from out of the ceiling, where I could see the soft glow of two lights, Meredith and Tina, and I felt much better. The whole process lasted maybe 30 seconds but seemed much longer. Once we collected our selves and clipped off our oxygen bottles to the line at about 20 feet deep ( basically on the ceiling of the room), we completed the descent to the gold line.

Friedman sink sits right on top of the gold line, so the line makes a vertical T at about 60 feet deep. We cookied the T and drifted down stream. I took this opportunity to get my drysuit situated and stretched out. I was still pretty amped up and breathing heavy but it was little to no effort swimming with the flow. We were headed towards Catfish Hotel. The visibility was clear but lots of particulate in the water. The walls of the cave are dark and range from black to a very dark orange color. The cave swallows your light.

After swimming west for 300 feet or so, drifting down hill (getting deeper as we go), we came to our jump for the Sewer Tunnel. We dropped our stage at our jump, before any of us were actually at drop pressure. This is because we had just swam down a siphon. So In order to get back to Friedman, we would have to swim against the flow back up stream. The extra gas was planned because we knew we would be working hard on the way back. Being conservative with plenty of gas in a siphon is the only way to do it safely.

Next Mer tied the jump in, and we were headed south in the Sewer Tunnel, a well deserved name. Large gunky chunks of orange algae or something came streaming out of the tunnel as we entered. There were 10 foot high mounds of silty sand dunes and the walls were orange. We didn’t spend much time in the Sewer Tunnel before rounding a corner into another tunnel called the Chalkley Bypass.

Once inside of Chalkley the flow was down but now we were swimming back upstream. So it was a good bit of work. This section of the cave is fairly manic. It has a lot of twists and turns, however some really amazing pure white clay banks.  We pressed on, going up over sand dunes and down under duck unders, and around big boulders. We swam south east for roughly 20 mins before I hit my turn pressure. And since I was following Mer and Tina, I signaled to them with my light and as they turned around, I gave the thumbs up, indicating that it was time to end the dive.

The swim back out of the chalkley bypass (west again) was nice. Now swimming with the flow, we didn’t have to kick much at all and within no time, we were back at our stages. I was the first one back so I got my stage picked up and clipped it off onto my side, while waiting for Mer and Tina to clean the jump. Then they picked up their stages too. We did our switch back to the stage and began swimming back up stream on the main line. This time it was much harder. We were in the full force of the flow and I was just sucking gas.

After kicking hard and pulling on the few rocks that could be pulled on, for what seemed like 10 minutes, we finally arrived back at our T. We all picked up our cookies and began our ascent. At this point I switched back to back gas at the 40 foot stop. We slowly ascended up to 20 feet and picked up our oxygen bottles that we left hanging on the line. We did a quick switch to oxygen and did 5 minutes of deco at 20 feet.

During deco I gently pinned myself to the ceiling by adding a bit of gas to my wing and just enjoyed the moment. I watched the particulates, leaves and sticks float around me. Occasionally poking one. I would look around and keep an eye on Mer and Tina’s lights but for the most part it was just pretty relaxing staring at all the junk in the water.

The deco was up pretty quickly and it was time to go back out that hole we came in. Tina went first. She went vertical up the tube and disappeared. Next I went. I could see the line in the tube but as I looked up I couldn’t see any day light until I got within a foot or so from the surface. I popped out of the water to find Tina waiting for me and shortly after that Mer came up. We had just done a real cave dive.

We had done the cave dive I imagined as a new open water diver. Although there were no monsters, there was little to no visibility, a dark hole, and a cramped restriction. Both Tina and I felt pretty humbled but I like to think we were ready for a dive like this, but it was still a challenge mentally.

Tina felt a bit bummed because she thought she should have done better in the beginning of the dive. She was feeling like she should have not struggled so much to talk her self into crawling into a small hole at the bottom of a stagnant pool of water, with zero visibility. But I told her that she shouldn’t feel bad at all, it was tough for me too. And then I reminded her that she just went into a small hole at the bottom of a stagnant pool with zero visibility. That isn’t something many people would consider doing.

Everyone that has been cave diving for a while has that story of the first time they did a zero vis entry into a cave and this is ours. It’s not something that you want to try after only a handful of dives but eventually, you get the courage and have the experience that it’s manageable.

We got out of the sink and geared down pretty quickly because by now the sun was out and it was hot. We were also petty hungry so a mandatory stop at Bills Bar B Q was in order. Overall it was a really good day and we grew a little. Do I want to do that dive again? Yes for sure, just not next week.

And as always, many thanks to Mer for being our guide for the day. She has a way of knowing just how to push us out of our comfort zone, enough to let us grow in a safe manner. It was a good day.