This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative. Read my latest ramblings on the PADI blog!
Would you believe me if I told you one of my greatest travel adventures took place this summer in a lil’ ol’ place called Florida? It sure did, and it had nothing to do with theme parks or beaches. (Though, well, clearly I love those too.)
Late this August I spent a week scuba diving Florida’s caverns and springs with my frequent dive buddy and talented photography mentor Heather, starting with PADI’s three day Cavern Diver specialty course out of Tampa and continuing with a four day road trip around Central Florida’s diving hotspots.
I had first became intrigued with the idea of dipping my toe in the world of cavern and cave diving when I took a trio of tech-esque courses on Koh Tao, Thailand in 2016, and like so many of my casual daydreams, I couldn’t let it go until it became a reality.
Yet cavern diving, it turns out, requires, ya know, caverns. Groundbreaking information alert! While lamenting to a cave diving friend in Thailand that the training was no longer available on the island (training once completed in Khao Sok National Park has been suspended due to a serious of unfortunate dive accidents), he looked at me like I was insane. “You’re a Yank — why don’t you go to Florida?!” Seed, consider yourself planted.
So, what is cavern diving? Cavern diving is defined as any dive conducted within the light zone of a cave — while you absolutely dive with lights and take extensive safety precautions, you can see natural light at all times, unlike in cave diving. A cavern diving course is essentially an intro to cave diving course.
Me and Heather — back to school!
I realized early on that it was very important to me to take this course with a female instructor. The vast majority of my instructors and mentors over the years have been men and they have been faultless, fantastic teachers who I have great respect for and have been shown great respect in return. And I’m sure there are many male cavern instructors who would have done the same. But my years in the diving world have shown me that there is a certain machismo to the tech diving world, especially in the US. Knowing I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone to take the course already, I simply couldn’t stand the thought of spending three days being condescended to. In my initial research stage of calling around to talk to various schools and instructors about the course, I talked to people I would have paid not to spend three days with.
Enter Anna Blevins, my angel in sidemount wings. From the moment I read Anna’s response to my email inquiry, I knew she was the one, and from the first minute of our phone conversation I had a hunch I’d be a customer of hers for years to come. Anna looks like the soccer mom next door, but don’t let looks deceive you — she’s an army veteran, a former litigation paralegal and today, a fully cave-certified matriarch of a dive business that also employs her son and daughter-in-law. And while I cast my original net across the entirety of Florida, it just so happened that Anna’s shop Adventure Outfitters was right in my adopted Sunshine State backyard of Tampa, literally five minutes down the road from my Aunt Karen’s condo.
The course is two and a half days long and includes four dives — an afternoon in the classroom going over cavern diving risks and concerns, mastering terminology, doing equipment setup, and running land drills with reels followed by two days doing two-tank dives. With no further ado, this is my review of the PADI Cavern Diver Course with Adventure Outfitters in Tampa!
After scooping Heather up at the Tampa Airport, where she’d flown into from her home of Grand Cayman, we drove directly to Adventure Outfitters to hit the books. Adventure Outfitters was a clean, organized and colorful shop and after a flurry of hugs and introductions, we settled in for a PowerPoint lecture while Anna’s son serviced dive gear in the back room and her menagerie of shop animals curled up under our feet.
One of the most comforting facts I absorbed during this lesson was regarding dive accidents. Florida, sadly, has no shortage of tragic dive stories hitting the news, the reasons for which I would come to more deeply understand over the course of our time across the state. But studies into these incidents show 95% of divers who have cave or cavern diving accidents had no formal training in either. Of those 5% who did have training, the majority of accidents involved going beyond their level of training. Man, did that take a weight off my shoulders. Here we were, receiving our formal training. And if there was ever a set of limitations I wasn’t going to push, it was going to be the ones Anna set for us over the next few days.
We learned so much in just one afternoon. We learned about unique concerns in cavern diving such as landowner relations, important in a state where so many caverns are on private land. We learned about the different types of silt — a cavern diver’s worst enemy! — and how to avoid it within a confined environment. We learned about the natural hazards of an overhead environment, about how to modify existing equipment for cavern diving, and all about the ins and outs of two things no cavern diver should leave home without, lights and reels.
Much of what I learned in my self-reliant and sidemount courses was repeated and emphasized here again, including using redundant light and breathing systems, those handy anti-silting techniques, and more conservative dive planning — in this case, planning that takes into account both depth and distance limits and air management for caverns. Sound complicated? I promise when Anna explains it, it all makes perfect sense.
When we’d worked our way through the material — with plenty of time to play with the rescue kitten we christened Paddy, in honor of PADI, duh — we went outside to do some reel drills.
While we may have felt a bit silly tying a reel off to a palm tree in the parking lot, it really did help to establish muscle memory and give us an idea of what we were doing while we were still on land and could ask questions. I was grateful for it the next day once we were underwater!
Soon we said goodnight with a plan to meet early the next morning for our first official day of Florida diving. I was apprehensive but, armed with a collection of the finest snack bag a Central Tampa Walgreens could provide (Heather and I’s trips always have a killer snack bag), I knew I’d be able to stress eat my way through anything.
Right away, we were already learning the first lesson of Florida diving — there’s always a drive involved. Heather and I were thrilled when Anna told us that dives 1 and 2 typically take place at Paradise Springs, a spot that had been on our diving wishlist. However, Paradise Springs, like many of Florida’s best scuba spots, sits on privately owned land — and the owners were on vacation.
Paradise Springs was an hour and forty five minute drive — ouch, I thought. Anna also considered Hudson Grotto, a mere hour and fifteen minutes away, as a replacement, but ultimately assured us we would have been disappointed with it. Which is how we ended up driving two and a half hours each way to a dive site. Welcome to Florida!
Also super Florida? Setting up our dive gear out the back of a pickup truck! We were itching to get in the water by the time we hit Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland, but we still had a bit of dive planning to do — mainly, going over our newly streamlined, trim controlled and cavern-ready gear configurations. Looks like the wild deer in the park were also interested in taking their cavern specialties — they kept stopping by to say hi!
Manatee Springs is, as you may have guessed from the name, an important winter refuge for West Indian manatees. With a bike trail, plenty of hiking routes, rental canoes, and beautiful clear spring waters, I’d love to come back to camp in this park someday. While it is possible to dive in the crystal clear Manatee Springs Main Spring and many instructors complete beginner coursework there, we were headed to Catfish Hotel, a famous cavern that we were about to get pretty cozy with.
Florida’s springs are 72 degrees year round, which meant we were donning a fair bit of neoprene to get ready to dive them. With our steel tanks, seven millimeter wetsuits, and heavy artillery of dive lights and reels, the five minute walk from the truck bed to the sinkhole entrance felt like eternity. When we arrived and looked down at the surface covered in a think, green menacing muck, I burst out laughing.
“Um, is this… normally what it looks like?” I asked Anna, seriously considering if it was too late to back out now. The muck, it turned out, was duckweed, and yup, Catfish Hotel is famous for it. We had no choice but to submerge ourselves in what appeared to be the dwelling of a cruel swamp monster.
Those first moments of the first dive, as we poked our heads down under the think layer of duckweed and tried to get our bearings in the dark, murky water were some of the most intimidating of my dive career. But I relied on my years of experience and training to stay calm and focused, and I soon fell into the groove of the dive plan Anna had drilled into us.
First, we went to experience a very unique feature of Catfish Hotel — that it contains both a spring and a siphon. Springs are when water flows out into a body of water. Siphons are when water flows in, making them unsafe to dive. After checking out the spring source we swam gently towards the siphon, maintaining a safe distance but coming just close enough to feel its power. It was surreal.
Next, we began our skills — Heather and I took turn setting lines, running out-of-air drills, blindly following each others’ lines after swapping to a mask covered in duct tape (that was a real trust exercise, for sure!) and practicing various propulsion techniques.
Learning reel technique and etiquette is a big ‘ol part of the cavern course, and for good reason. It’s one of the most important pieces of safety equipment you can carry — and it’s basically a big roll of nylon string!
Coming up from our first dive and walking back to the truck to set up our second tanks, deer literally leapt in front of us. Talk about getting back to nature. As we discussed the dive, I confessed that I felt about as graceful and skilled as an manatee out of water. Between the unfamiliar gear, my fogging new mask, a set of clumsy skills and the unsettling and foreign environment, I was a hot mess down in that cold water. But Anna assured me I did better than just fine, and everything I was describing was just growing pains.
She was right. The second dive enormously improved my confidence, and patches in the duckweed from where our air bubbles had broken through created beautiful streams of light into the cavern. Anna was right. Five hours in the car? Worth it, even if I was washing duckweed out of my hair for two days.
Our destination for dives 3 and 4 and the final day of our cavern diving course were Hospital Hole, a mere hour and fifteen minute drive from Tampa. That’s basically next door when it comes to Florida diving.
The name comes from local legend that injured fish come to this site to be healed before returning to the sea — not, as some believe, because it sent divers to the hospital. Though, I must say, it was intense. Hospital Hole is famous for its most distinctive feature — a thick layer of dark hydrogen sulfide that essentially allows you to descend into a low-visibility night dive at any time of day.
Hospital Hole is a sinkhole — a cavern that collapsed onto itself long, long ago — on the Weeki Wachee River, about a thousand feet upriver from the bridge at Roger’s Park. The surrounding land is all on private property, which means there’s only one way to get there — by boat. And so, along with our tanks and dive gear, we’d packed three kayaks.
After stuffing a tank in each end of the kayak and giggling at our heavy launches, we enjoyed a peaceful short paddle upriver. While we were the only divers we’d see that day for the second day in a row, the river itself was teeming with kayakers and stand up paddleboarders, even mid-week. We snorted at the eccentric houses along the river with hand-painted signs advertising specials like “manatee spear rentals: 25 cents” and boats named Cirrhosis of the River.
Reaching the sinkhole, we tied up our kayaks to a nearby palm tree and started setting up our gear. The opening was about 30 feet across and clearly visible from the surface, though Anna warned things would quickly get murky.
The maximum depth of Hospital Hole is around 130 feet and the maximum width is about 150 feet, with the ceiling gently slopes upward towards the opening. There’s no cave here — this is cavern diving only.
On the first dive, I set the line around the entrance to the sinkhole. Finding a tie-off location was a little trickier than it had been at Catfish Hotel. Here, though, I could not even imagine diving without it.
The hydrogen sulfide layer began and 70 feet and, though the depth fluctuates with tide, went all the way to the bottom of 130 feet on this particular day. Things were pretty uneventful until we hit 70 feet, and as the darkness curled around us, I squeezed Anna’s hand and focused on calm, steady breathing. And suddenly I understood on a visceral level the reasons for all the reels and all those backup lights. My lips began to tingle and I marveled at the sensation of smelling something underwater — sulfur. The smell was so overwhelming I felt like I could taste it, too.
We could just make out murky tree branches brushing our fins in the dark waters below us at around 100 feet, though Anna later told us there’s also a small boat and several dozen GoPros lurking in the depths.
All that magic in just 25 minutes. I found most of our dives throughout the week were shorter than I expected. When I dive in the ocean I’m always thrilled to be one of the last up on the boat — I’m great on air and I always want to stay down as long as possible and sometimes push an hour if I can do so safely. Who knows what creature might cruise through?
But I found that the freshwater dives in Florida were more like half that length. For starters, the rules of cavern diving say you turn around with two thirds of your air (1/3rd to return, 1/3rd for backup), the colder water encourages shorter dive times, and most of the dive sites are compact enough that you can quite comfortably enjoy every feature in a half hour or so.
On our second dive, after a surface interval swinging from a palm tree, Heather set the line, and I found I much preferred the roll of light-holder. This time, as we reached the hydrogen sulfide layer, I found myself much more comfortable and relaxed — though I still breathed a little easier once we were out of it.
Exploring the walls on the way up, we giggled at graffiti (“manatees suck” was a particular favorite, if terribly inaccurate, while an incredible number of phallus renderings got an underwater eye roll) and peered into solution tubes along the walls — some of which were large enough to enter, though blocked off at the top, preventing swim-throughs.
We paused close to the surface to do a missing diver drill using the line. I found this one interesting and also challenging because it involved going off alone with one end of the reel while your buddy stays at the base of the reel, which normally feels like a no-no in diving. But our hard work was well rewarded when we crested the lip of the sinkhole and found the most amazing companion — a manatee! Purposely diving with manatees is illegal, so surprise encounters like this one are incredibly thrilling. While he didn’t stick around for long, it was just the perfect conclusion to my most adventurous day of diving yet.
This was possibly my favorite specialty I’ve ever done, and I’ve really loved them all. Sidemount was a challenge to think outside the box with my gear configuration, nitrox was a challenge to my dive theory understanding, and solo diver was a challenge to think ahead, be self reliant, and prepare for anything. Cavern diving, I knew, would largely for me be a psychological challenge. What an incredible thrill it was to not just survive but thrive while tackling my fear of the dark and low-visibility situations. And I could not have done it without Heather and Anna by my sides.
Anna is an entrepreneur, a passionate cave diver, a patient instructor and an all around fabulous #PADIwoman! I wasn’t surprised in the slightest to learn that she’d won a PADI Pro award after being nominated by one of her students. She’s a stickler for safety but doesn’t take herself too seriously — she made the experience completely unintimidating while very effectively communicating the gravity of the course material. Plus, she has really cute shop animals.
Anna customizes every course to every student — and that includes the dive sites. In addition to Hospital Hole, Catfish Hotel, Paradise Springs, and Hudson Hole, Anna regularly brings students to the Crystal River, Blue Grotto and Devil’s Den — all of which we’d visit on our ensuing road trip, so stay tuned!
Anna is full cave certified and told Heather and I in full seriousness than when she retired it’s going to be to a condo in central Florida where she can start every morning with a three hour cave dive. Hello, badass!
She is also the champion of regular city-wide dive cleanups in the area and fosters a real dive community in Tampa — every time we were in the shop it seemed there were customers and friends dropping by for dive socials, to chat about the weekend’s spearfishing competitions, and more. They host regular dive lectures, springs dive and camping trips, boat dives, wreck trips, and more. Adventure Outfitters is now officially my go-to dive center in Florida.
Considering your own PADI Cavern Course? Come to Florida. Seriously, I priced out the course everywhere from Mexico to Thailand, and at $375 it was actually cheapest here in Tampa. While I was lucky to have a free place to stay with my aunt nearby, I was impressed by the array of affordable Airbnbs nearby (get $40 off your first stay using this discount link.) Anna doesn’t teach more than two students at a time, so you’re guaranteed a super personalized experience. You do need to be PADI Advanced Open Water Diver who is at least 18 years old to enroll in the Cavern Diver course, and Nitrox is highly recommended as well.
When I first got the idea of doing a cavern diving course in my head, I had no idea the incredible adventures that were in store for me. Intrigued by my Florida diving experiences? Buckle up and stay tuned, because I have some crazy tales from our road trip coming up this week!
Would you ever consider taking a cavern diving course?
Many thanks to PADI for making this course possible and to Heather for the underwater photos in this post.