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March 31, 2008

Free diving

When I think of diving, I think of breathing underwater. But most of us dive long before we learn how to use Scuba. When I was a kid, diving to me meant getting to the ten-foot bottom of the public pool, and it made my ears hurt. For a while I practiced breathholding and timed myself. I can't remember how long I managed to go without taking a breath, but it seemed respectable to me back then. I never did learn how to equalize my ears free diving. At Three Sisters in Crystal River, Florida, a sharp pain in my ears kept me from going deeper than eight or ten feet or so. Yet, free divers go much, much deeper than that.

I just finished reading "The Dive -- A Story of Love and Obsession" by Pipin Ferreras. It's the story of a Cuban free diver who set record after record together with his wife, Audrey. A fatal accident killed Audrey during a dive to 170 meters (558 feet) and the book recalls Ferreras life and is also a tribute to his wife. Earlier I had read "The Blue Edge" by Carlos Eyles, also a man who pretty much dedicated his life to free diving, albeit for different reasons. But whether it is records, spear fishing, or just being one with the sea, it is hard for me to imagine how it is done.

Scuba and free diving both take place in the water, but beyond that everything seems different. Scuba dives can take an hour or more. Free dives a couple of minutes or maybe three for accomplished free divers. Scuba is slow and measured movement; free diving means darting down and back to the surface. Scuba means dealing with the gas laws so as to avoid embolisms, narcosis, the bends; free diving has none of that as no additional nitrogen is introduced into the body.

Competitive free diving, of course, has its own rules and governing bodies. There are different categories. In "Constant Weight" the diver follows a line to a certain depth and then swims back up, all on his or her own power. In "Variable Weight" the diver uses a weighted sled to go down, then swims back up. In "No Limit," the diver uses a sled to go down, then inflates an airbag at the bottom and holds on to that to get back to the surface. The depths reached are almost unimaginable. How can they do that?

Apparently, in free diving the rules are all different. With no compressed air to counter-balance the enormous water pressure, the lungs and other air cavities inside the body compress enormously. Conventional equalization of the ears and sinus only goes that far; beyond a certain depth the divers do "water equalization, " i.e. they let salt water into the sinus system in a practice that is described as entirely unpleasant. And another phenomenon takes place when a "blood shift" keeps the lungs from collapsing. It's a residual from ancient times perhaps, from our genetic past, but it works (not that I'd ever want to experience it).

The kind of free diving described in "The Dive" requires extensive planning and preparation. Safety divers on scuba are deployed at regular depth intervals, including the bottom. In those extreme record attempts, that means a diver has to wait at almost 600 feet on Trimix. Breathing gas goes very fast at that depth and it's clear that timing is everything. Once the safety divers are down, the free diving attempt must be made exactly on time. And even so, the deeper safety divers won't be back on the surface to partake in the celebrations as there are hours of decompression time.

Wherever there are records and titles, there are politics and competing agencies and bodies, and apparently that's no different in free diving. In his book, Ferreras describes his life and career, and his intense personality that more or less made him an outcast. Already relying on his own certifying agency, after his wife died in her record attempt he came under intense criticism. One of his own crew wrote a book accusing Ferreras of negligence and wrongdoing.

Knowing my tendency to get deeply involved in topics that interest me, I promised myself not to start research on free diving after I finished the book. But in this day and age that's hard to do. Wiki provides an overview, and Audrey Mestre's final dive is right there on YouTube. Yes, the sled's camera recorded how she is trying to inflate the lift bag at a depth of 558 feet, and it won't inflate. You can watch the whole thing.

Posted by conradb212 at 03:37 PM | Comments (0)

March 26, 2008

Mark Fyvie (1972-2008)

People die every day, by the thousands. From natural causes and from accidents. Unless a death happens in our families or we are confronted with it in some other way, we barely notice. Even the gruesome stuff we see on television or read in the newspapers doesn't really affect us. This only happens to other people, not us. But every once in a while a death does affect us. It can be a celebrity, like Princess Di or Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter. And sometimes a death affects us just because we can somehow relate, through some connection. That's what happened to me when I read about the death of Mark Fyvie. He died on March 10, 2008 inside the Ginnie Springs cave system in Florida.

Running the scubadiverinfo.com site, I get almost every diving-related accident notice via Google news. I don't post them but file them away. It makes no sense to highlight just the danger and the bad things that can happen. Life is dangerous, even one's bathroom where most domestic fatalities occur. I don't see Better Homes & Gardens Magazine report on that very often. It's not necessary.

I first heard of this accident after Carol's certification trip to Ginnie Springs. A cave diver had died the week prior. He had been deep inside the cave system. There had been silting of the system as a result, it was said, and apparently the diver had gone in there by himself with experimental rebreather equipment. I looked it up on Google News and found just three references to it. Compared to the international coverage of the shark-related death during a shark feeding trip, that's a virtual news blackout. In fact, it was just the Gainesville Sun and the local High Springs Heralds that reported at all, or at least that is what Google picked up.

The reports were brief, but what caught my eye was that this was a diver from my native Switzerland. His name was Mark Fyvie, and the paper reported he'd been diving alone, entering the Ginnie Springs underground and underwater caves through the Devil's Eye entry just past noon. When he had not returned by 9pm, another diver by the name of Corey Mearns went looking for him, and Mark Fyvie was found 3,800 feet into the system. The IUCRR (International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery) non-profit posted a new thread on the cavediver.net forum entitled "Fatality beyond the Hinkel" in the afternoon of March 11. The report said the diver had used a side mount/no mount rig for passage through a suspected new lead. It was reported that an IUCRR recovery team brought out the body at 9AM on March 11.

I then searched through Tages Anzeiger, the big local newspaper in Zurich, Switzerland but did not find a mention. However, I quickly found Mark Fyvie's website and this is where everything became very emotional. Zurich is my hometown. I grew up there. Zurich Divers, which he started and ran, was Mark Fyvie's diving homebase. His personal site was not in German but in flawless English, which surprised me. I can usually tell translations from German into English, but his English was perfect.

I saw Mark's credentials. He'd been diving since 1993 and a diving instructor since 2000. He had almost a thousand dives to his name. He was a PADI IDC Staff Instructor, an Emergency First Response Instructor Trainer, a DSAT Tec Trimix Instructor, a DSAT Gas Blender Instructor, and an IANTD Technical Cave Instructor. He was also certified as a Closed Circuit Rebreather cave diver, Trimix diver, cave scooter diver, and specially trained on the Megalodon rebreather. So Mark was certainly no noob or amateur. A look at Mark's diving highlights is a trip around the world. He'd been diving and cave diving all over the place, with extensive cave diving, sometimes weeks at a time.

Mark reported on a two week dive trip to the Ginnie Springs area where they'd penetrated 3,800 feet, past the Hinkel restriction. In April of 2007 he did his Megalodon training with a true diving legend, Jill Heinerth of RebreatherPro.com, and Jill was highly complimentary of Mark both as a person and as a skillful diver. Mark himself, on his site, was completely aware of the pros and cons of rebreathers. "Some people who dive rebreathers think that once you buy one you must do every single dive with it." Mark wrote, "I don't agree at all. A CCR is a dangerous device that could kill you at any time, why take the risk of using one on a simple dive that could be done more safely with open circuit?"

Another entry from November 2007 describes a full month of cave diving with the Megalodon rebreather in the Americas. This is where he got his CCR Cave and CCR Trimix certifications and also descended down to 272 feet in Eagle's Nest. He was enthusiastic and wrote, "Now I realise what closed-circuit rebreathers are for - it's totally changed the way I can dive caves." He went on to say, "The bad part is finding a dive buddy for this kind of diving. Even in cave country it's tough and I had to do most of the dives alone. ... Now, feeling rather limited by the duration of my CO2 scrubber, I purchased a new radial scrubber, which should easily be able to handle durations of up to ten hours. I can't wait until my next trip in February."

Again I was surprised by the consistently high quality of his English, then found that Mark wasn't Swiss. He'd been born in South Africa, then had lived in New Zealand, Australia, England, Germany and finally Switzerland. He was truly an international citizen, always traveling and exploring new things and places. Switzerland was not going to be his final destination and even after having been away from my native country for over 30 years, I chuckled at Mark's comment that he yearned "for a place where he can shop on Sundays, take a shower after 10pm". It's true. Your neighbors may call the police if you take a shower after 10pm, shops are rarely open, bars close early and at least in my days, you had to register with the police if you moved from one neighborhood to another.

What made me cry was another part of his website. It was about his wedding. He had proposed to his sweetheart and they were going to get married on September 6th of 2008 in Venice. Mark had it all planned out, described every step. He had his whole life ahead of him. It is just so very sad.

At this point I was abundantly clear that this was not just another reckless diver who didn't know what he was doing. This was an extremely accomplished, very smart man who planned meticulously and left nothing to chance. I have done quite a few things in my life, have moved around, seen many different places, have had different careers, but nothing like Mark who was only 36 years old when he died. Looking at his many other interests, I saw that he'd been learning Japanese and wanted to live there someday, was enthusiastic about biodiesel in Australia, Pilates training in Switzerland, all on top of being a certified Cisco engineer.

But there was more. Mark also initiated a discussion forum for English speakers in Switzerland, the englishforum.ch. There was a need for that as Swiss German is as close to a legal secret code as it gets. Mark had commented that while "he was fluent in German, he was completely baffled by Swiss-German and unable to understand even more than a few words." That's because you cannot learn Swiss German. It is only a spoken language. So Mark created a place to help English speakers in the Swiss society. I know the software he used as I use it to run a large forum/community myself. His setup was, of course, completely up-to-date and nicely customized. An "In Memoriam: Mark Fyvie (1972-2008)" was posted on March 13. Within days it had over 300 replies and testimonies to what a great and wonderful person he'd been and how many he had helped. His work had touched people's lives. From all I read about him, I guess he just couldn't help helping others.

Jill Heinerth herself wrote a post and tribute to Mark, her student and friend. She said Mark was a "peer among a very elite group of the world's extremely accomplished and capable technical divers" and that "Mark contributed more to the cave diving community than can ever be measured." In a eulogy on her own website at rebreatherpro.com, Jill wrote "But the reality is that manipulating your own atmosphere for life support is the most dangerous thing you will ever do. Add to that advanced activities like cave diving and exploration and we are on the razor’s edge."

In the end, Mark's time was up, much too soon. In my reading I have often come across divers' frustration when a fatality is simply dismissed as drowning, leaving up to speculation what actually may have happened, and why. Sometimes it's obvious, often it is not. The Megalodon is a rugged, modular and highly regarded electronically-controlled closed circuit rebreather with redundant electronics and a HUD display made by InnerSpace Systems. Mark had indicated he had purchased a radial instead of the standard axial scrubber. The radial scrubber would be able to last as much as ten hours underwater. Inner Space says CisLunar scrubbers also work on the Megalodon and according to an evaluation of the Meg on spiralbound.net, others do as well, though only the CisLunar is mentioned as being radial. Whether or not that made Mark's unit experimental I don't know.

Now one is not supposed to dive solo, though I've read of many wreck divers who feel solo is actually safer under certain conditions where panic can easily result into two fatalities instead of one rescue. As is, my Cavern/Cave Diver Workbook by the National Association for Cave Diving says to "dive with a properly trained and equipped diving partner and maintain diving team continuity throughout the dive." However, that only seems to be a philosophy and not a requirement. As far as safe cave diving goes, "The NACD strongly advocates diving with a partner as the best approach to safe cave diving." Mark had already concluded that finding a suitable buddy for extended time diving was difficult and that he had to do most of his dives alone.

It is equally important to let others know one's dive plan in case something goes wrong. His dive plan was known as he was enthusiastic about his plans and wanted to share with his friends, and at least that aided in the recovery.

The rest is mystery. I'll likely never know what happened, exactly, and it is none of my business. I did not know Mark personally, but his story, so well documented, deeply touched me. May he rest in peace and his loved ones find some sort of solace, nearly impossible though that is.

Posted by conradb212 at 08:23 PM | Comments (0)

March 17, 2008

The Florida Springs

Carol took another flock of her students for certification to Ginnie Springs, Florida, and I was reminded how much I like those springs. And also how peculiar it is that a good deal of my diving experience to-date is in the springs of Florida and not some of the more exotic dive destinations like the Carribbeans. So while she was assessing the skills of her students I began searching the web for more information on the springs, and as usual, one thing led to another and before I knew it I had spent the entire weekend just reading about the various springs.

It's really an amazing thing, those Florida springs. I mean, when it comes to Florida, most people think of sandy beaches, the keys, spring break madness, alligators, swamps, and -- if they are old enough -- perhaps Miami Vice. They'd probably associate Florida with diving, but in the ocean and not inland and certainly not in some of the clearest, freshest water anywhere. But that is what you get in Florida's springs.

How did it all happen in what most people think is just swampland? Well, the northern part of Florida has a vast underground aquifer with several hundred springs. Together they discharge almost ten billion gallons of fresh water a day, with some of the larger ones contributing hundreds of millions of gallons to that total each day. It's all part of a giant storage system. The water originates as rainfall that then penetrates limestone where it is filtered and accumulates in fissures and holes. Combined with carbon dioxide and decaying plant matter, the water becomes mildly acidic and, over many thousands of years, enlarges cracks and holes and creates passages. What it all means is that there is a vast underground system of caverns and caves, many interconnected, in northern Florida and this is the source of all those springs.

The term "springs" is perhaps a bit inadequate because the vast freshwater resources contained in the Floridian limestone system creates all sorts of natural wonders. There are, of course, springs, and they often come right out of the ground. Somehow I associate springs and rivers as something that originates higher up, in the mountains, and then makes its way towards the sea. But Florida's springs come from underground. When you dive, you often see holes at the bottom, with water pushing out of them. Sometimes it's just little boils in the sand. You see them in the clear water, see individual grains of sand twirling around, and feel the flow when you put your hand on them.

But all that water also created grand caverns, nearly endless caves, and also many sinkholes. When we think of sinkholes we generally think of the evening news reporting on a hole in the ground that all of a sudden opened up, collapsing a road or swallowing a home. Those sort of things are usually blamed on human transgressions such as draining or over-using the watertable. However, sinkholes also happen naturally when water slowly eats away at limestone until a ceiling collapses and forms an open entry into the underground spring system.

A good explanation of all this can be found on the "The Journey of Water" webpage of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

What does all this mean to divers? It means that Florida has perhaps some of the best diving in the world, and it is in places where you'd never expect it. Instead of sandy beaches, tropical islands, and dive boats, Florida diving seems all shallow rivers and small ponds, some of which covered in duck weed and hard to spot. Once inside, the water is usually crystal clear. That's because it is not stagnant like in a lake, but constantly replaced by the vast volume of water from the underground springs. This phenomenon is exploited by a good number of popular parks and campgrounds located around those springs. People go there to swim and snorkel and just have a good time.

To me, this is what makes Florida's springs so fascinating. There is endless variety. To some people they offer an enjoyable get-away in one of the well-maintained parks with their lush, prehistoric-looking groves and clear, refreshing ponds. Some come to watch the Manatees which like to hang out in the springs. And some dive the caverns and the caves where things can get quite extreme. Manatee Springs state park, for example, both contains a friendly pond and the entrance to a vast underwater caves system that's testing the very limits of courage, skills and endurance in the exploration of many thousands of feet of labyrinthine cave.

During my online explorations I was reminded again of the thin line that separates harmless, enjoyable fun from entry into a deep twilight zone that's as challenging and dangerous as exploring outer space. When Carol and I last dove the Catfish Hotel sink in Manatee Springs state park, I both marveled at the dreamy underwater world that looked like right out of a Pixar movie and shivered knowing that the dark cavern at its bottom was the starting point of Sheck Exley's explorations into the black unknown of endless caves and also where just a few days prior a young man had died when the water had sucked him into the cave.

Ginnie Springs where Carol certified her class likewise has a bright and a dark side. The water in the small spring/pond area is gin-clear, as the location's name implies, but just yards away, underground, lies a massive cave system that has claimed many lives. None other than the great Sheck Exley almost died at Ginnie early in his cave diving career. And, as she later found out, a week before Carol's certification trip, a cave diver had perished deep inside the Ginnie system. Sometimes, a dark side lies just beneath the sunny, friendly surface, and most never even know it's there.

I was reminded yet again of the interesting role Florida's springs play when I found a website dedicated to Florida Springs with almost 50 trip reports and descriptions of springs, rivers and sinkholes in the state's northwest, north and central regions. The site offers an hourlong DVD, entitled "Florida Springs -- The Unexplored Florida" on a good dozen of the more interesting springs. I ordered it and it arrived just a couple of days later. Watching it was an experience. Not only did I see some of the places I had been to myself, but I was reminded again of the secret nature of those treasures. Even the state parks are mostly visited for picnics or swimming and not that many divers know about them.

I also realized once again how diverse the springs are. Some are popular and easily accessible whereas others are virtually unknown or closed off to public access. Some are bright and friendly, others look dark and forbidding. In some you are not allowed to dive at all, in others you pay a fee at the park ranger's office, and some require special permission. According to the DVD, there are even some where you need to check in with the local sheriff and get permission there.

All of this made me want to go back. I'll most likely never dive a cave, will never see what Carol saw, but I may get my cavern certification and poke around some of the better known ones. I cannot wait.

Posted by conradb212 at 04:31 PM | Comments (0)

March 08, 2008

I feel like a total scuba failure

I feel like a total scuba failure. I really do. It's been since last August that I was diving, a couple of pool sessions not included. I really feel awful about that. In a few short months it'll be two years since I got certified and all I have to show for it is about 30 legitimate dives. And this website. How could I create this rather comprehensive website, write the equivalent of a book into this blog, and only have 30 dives to my name? I am not a slacker or procrastinator. How could this happen?

I think of all the excuses I could have for not going diving. I have no dive buddy here. Work doesn't leave me enough time to go diving. Diving trips cost a lot of money. It's cumbersome to get all my dive gear together. There's no place close-by where I can go diving. The small class of people I go certified never stayed in contact. I wasn't ready for a wreck dive in the ocean when my local dive shop invited me to go. I couldn't leave my 11-year-old son on the shore when I was all ready to participate in a salvage operation organized by a local group of divers. And so on, and so on

But those excuses don't really wash. I may not have a regular dive buddy here, but others have overcome this obstacle. I even do the diving website for a local group of divers who regularly invite me to come to their meetings and go on their trips (I never do). My work really isn't a problem. I run a suite of websites and can do most of my work from anywhere as long as I have a computer and internet access. And finding someone to look after my cat really shouldn't keep me from going on a trip. Yes, dive trips can be quite expensive, but it's not that bad. I could afford one or two year. Yes, I don't live by the beach on a tropical island where I can go dive anytime, but Lake Tahoe is closeby and so is the Northern California coast. And if the four people in my dive class didn't respond to my emails, hey, they are not the only people to go dive with. And my gear, well, it's really all neatly packed in my dive bag. It's a lot of stuff, but I do know where it all is, and I keep it all properly maintained.

So it gets back to the same thing: how can I be enthusiastic enough about diving to get certified, do my advanced class, take the Nitrox class, read enough books about diving to -- in theory -- become an expert, do all the research to do this website, and still not go dive on a regular basis?

It's not that I don't want to. I absolutely cherish the memories I have from my few dives. I think of my first night dive and how spooky that was. I think of snorkeling with the Manatees. I think of diving underneath all that duckweed at Catfish Sink to see a magical world and take a picture looking up from the bottom, exactly where the great Sheck Exley once took a picture. I think of testing all those underwater cameras. And I think of locating Rubicon wall in Lake Tahoe and then descend to 110 feet in 48 degree water. I think about the five minutes of fear and uneasiness I always have before I go under (less so in my most recent dives). And I think of the thousands of pages I read about scuba, then summarized in book reports for this website, and how I resolved to experience some of what I read firsthand.

Yet, here I am with my 30 dives. Fact is, I never did actively seek a local dive buddy. Maybe I am the kind of person who needs a kick in the butt to do something. I don't see myself that way, but at least as far as Scuba goes, apparently I am. That bites. I hate it. Sometimes it seems like, for me, diving is like going to a party. I need a major push to go, but once I am there I really enjoy myself and resolve to accept invitations more often.

As is, I have no one to blame but myself for the measly 30 dives in my scuba log.

Posted by conradb212 at 03:36 PM | Comments (0)