An essay by James A Graves, Jr.
Growing up at Morrison Spring blessed me with me the luxury of being able to learn to scuba dive. I started when I was eight. I had been snorkeling for a while and preferred to be in, or under, the water as much as I could get away with. Some folks commented that I should have webbed feet and gills. Scuba diving and I were a perfect match.
My first diving lessons were from Captain Waldo, using a tiny, beginner’s scuba tank and regulator that he used to teach his sons how to dive. I caught on quickly, so it wasn’t long before I was using the scuba gear that we rented out of the Morrison Spring dive shop, and diving with the Waldos and others.
I confess that I violated the first rule of scuba diving (never dive alone) quite often, but with my parent’s permission, and only after I had been thoroughly checked out by several, highly-experienced scuba instructors who were all quite impressed with my skills.
I was very serious about diving safety and restricted myself to a depth of 50 feet, which was the bottom of the Morrison Spring basin beneath “the log” that lay across the crater of the cave system. Besides, I could free-dive to the log while snorkeling anyway, so scuba gear just allowed me to stay down longer.
Being at Morrison Spring nearly every day, all day in the summertime provided many opportunities to snorkel and scuba dive after I had completed my boat-tending and other chores. That luxury also made me available to lone divers wanting to do a cave dive – something that only a complete fool would do alone. I partnered with a myriad of divers, from novices to seasoned instructors. One of my regular dive partners was Phil Janca, an instructor who often stayed in our camp ground in his VW Microbus. Phil gave me my first .22 caliber rifle, which, many years later, would be stolen from my home on Garcon Point, Florida.
Some of my classmates also went scuba diving with me, but my favorite diving buddy was my old friend, Bill Braxton, from Bonifay, Florida. We had known each other since we were kids and had a long-running competition to see who could stay submerged the longest on one tank of air during a shallow dive - at, or above, 30 feet, which has a no-decompression limit of 205 minutes.
We practiced a method of controlled breathing to conserve air, and were able to stretch one shallow dive nearing 120 minutes. Bill claimed that I cheated because I had double-40 tanks and he only had a single 72 I argued that his tank was filled at a higher pressure but I conceded that I had the advantage and gave him a generous fudge-factor. In the end it didn’t really matter because we never declared a winner anyway. It was just another fun reason to stay under water.
After high school graduation, Bill joined the Navy, became a SEAL and served in the Vietnam War. I would like to believe that our marathon air conservation dives in that cold, 65-degree spring water played a small part in helping prepare him to endure and successfully complete the arduous Navy SEAL training. But Bill also played football for Holmes County High School and was much of a man. And after his SEAL training, he was bad to the bone.
My double-40 set-up was made for me by fellow scuba diver and family friend, Columbus Gillis from nearby Argyle, Florida. He was a machinist at Eglin Air Force Base and assembled the set from two nearly-identical tanks, one, a salvaged oxygen tank from a USAF B-52 Stratofortress, and the other, almost identical salvaged CO2 fire extinguisher. Both tanks held 40 cubic feet of air at 1800 psi, which provided a total of 80 cubic feet of air - eight cubic feet more than Bill’s 72 cubic feet of air in his standard single scuba tank filled to 2250 psi.
My double-40’s were compact, comfortable and, I thought, really cool. I could never thank Mr. Gillis enough for building them. And although I didn’t have the courage, I should have also thanked him for bringing along his beautiful daughter, Beverly, when he came to scuba dive at Morrison Spring. :-)
I made countless dives at Morrison Spring, in the basin and both the First Cave, about 50 feet down, and the Second cave, with a maximum depth of 120 feet.
One day, while diving in the Second Cave with Bill, I had what I can only describe as a religious experience. The entrance to the Second Cave, about 60 feet beneath the surface, is an elliptical shape and fairly large, about eight feet horizontally, and five feet vertically.
A strong current of spring water rushes out of the opening, on the order of 30,000 gallons per minute, but entry is easily accomplish by simply using the edge of a large limestone slab at the top of the entrance to pull yourself into the cave. Once inside, the strong current disappears, and the silent wonder of the massive limestone cave, filled with crystal clear water, is revealed. The water is so clear that you can’t actually see it, creating an atmosphere of floating weightless in a mysterious, alien world.
The entrance is positioned about midway between the ceiling and floor of the cave, which also has an elliptical shape. At midday, on a sunny day, a large shaft of blue sunlight penetrates at a steep downward angle through the cave entrance and illuminates the sandy white bottom of the cave. But even on a bright, sunny day, the cave is dimly lit, so a diving light is necessary to explore it.
However, with a bright midday sun, when you swim to the very back of the cave, face the entrance and switch off every diving light in the cave, something wondrous happens. You’re immediately struck by the blue shaft of sunlight streaming down to the floor of the cave, like a giant, blue-tinted spotlight focused on center stage. Then, as your eyes begin to adjust to the darkness, you discover that the sunlight bathes every part of the cave with indescribable shades of sapphire blue.
The first time I had the privilege to experience it, I was completely mesmerized. I forgot that I was scuba diving, lost touch with reality and felt that I was floating in sunlight in a fantasy world unlike anything I could ever imagined. I was so taken with the event that Bill swam up, tapped my mask and asked if I was okay with a “thumbs up” hand sign, which brought me back to reality.
I finally understood why illegal drugs never interested me – no drug could compare to that.
What I wouldn’t give to have a picture, or better yet, a movie, of that amazingly beautiful scene.
Just below where I floated in the Second Cave, and slightly to the right, at a depth of 120 feet, was the entrance to the Third Cave. As far as I was concerned, the Third Cave was strictly off limits. Having to take your tank off and push it ahead of you through a long, narrow shaft to enter a deep underwater cave is, in my humble opinion, insanity in its purest form.
However, there are apparently a lot of insane scuba divers in this world, because many have explored the Third Cave. In 1958, after recovering the body of a diver who drowned while diving alone in the Third Cave, the same team of rescue divers explored it to a depth of 325 feet on compressed air. They set an official cave diving record on compressed air of 290 feet during that dive. But since there is never a shortage of daredevils in this sport, that record didn’t stand for long.
Exploring the Third Cave even deeper was physically impossible on compressed air. However, it is not likely that they could have gone much deeper, even using mixed gasses required for deep, Saturation Diving, because at 325 feet, the last tunnel they explored opened into a tremendously large, black void. Their lights were not strong enough to penetrate the darkness and illuminate anything.
Considering that limestone is white and reflects light well, and that my little 6-volt diving light illuminated a large portion of the Second Cave, which is large enough to hold several semi-trucks with trailers, that deep void in the dark reaches of the Third Cave, 325 feet from the surface, is one damn big cavern.
My inquisitive nature compels me to fully explore the Third Cave, but the realist in me says that adventure is just not possible. Maybe someday someone will get curious enough and have the funds and technology to send down a deep-diving drone with powerful lights and cameras to explore fully and see what’s there. I just hope I can be there to see it.
I said that I have made countless dives in Morrison Spring, and I use the term “countless” literally. No one ever suggested keeping a dive logbook. That idea occurred to me a bit late - when I was making an entry into my Pilot’s Logbook. I suddenly realized that I’d never recorded the time, date and details of any of my underwater adventures. So, I have no written record of how many dives I made from 1959, through the sixties and into the seventies.
I also don’t have any pictures. I couldn’t afford a camera back then, much less an underwater camera, and no one had enough interest in my diving adventures to take pictures. We rented a Plexiglas contraption in the dive shop that allowed the use of a Kodak Instamatic camera, but I was forbidden from using it.
Much in the same way that I highly recommend learning to fly, and for essentially the same reasons, I highly recommend learning to scuba dive. Just beneath the surface of the earth’s abundant volumes of water, an alien world like no other quietly awaits, beckoning curious adventurers to come, explore and be amazed. Go there and be a part of it. But respect it; just like flying, scuba diving is very unforgiving of mistakes. Also, while you’re there, thread lightly and do no harm. But remember to take pictures!
©2016 James A Graves, Jr.