Sweltering under Florida’s summer sun, wearing wetsuits necessary for a prolonged dive in the 72 degree water, we assemble and test our diving gear and review our dive plan. 100 feet below us is one of the spring-fed caverns that has made northern Florida a diving mecca for cave divers all over the world.
Though excited, we buddy check each other’s gear with the utmost care; a rapid surface ascent would be far too dangerous from such depths. First, the air pressure gauge; 3000 psi, a full tank. Next the primary and backup regulators; both flow easily. Next tested is the inflatable vest known as a buoyancy compensator, or “BC”. All is secure and functional. The diver’s weight belt is verified, and the dive computers have fresh batteries. We are ready to dive.
As we slip below the waves, the senses change. The sounds of the surface world are immediately muted; the rustle of the breeze, the chirping of birds and clucking of squirrels, the everyday sounds to which we are accustomed are immediately quenched and replaced with the sound and sensation of one’s own breath. First the sharp hiss of the intake, followed by the exhale, a slow gurgling rumble. Each breath is intensely cold and dry, yet soothing as it fills the lungs. Thus encased in a sensory cocoon surrounding us with self awareness, we sink further below the still surface.
The waters are clear as glass, but the sun’s light becomes ever more attenuated. In our monochrome world, the soft turquoise of the shallows has given way to a dark navy blue at the opening of the cave. We activate our waterproofed torches and continue into a different world.
The floor of the cave is soft silt sand, but the walls and roof are limestone pockmarked from years of erosion. The ceiling shimmers with pockets of air, trapped and unable to flow back to the surface. We follow the lead of our guide; we remove our fins and rotate upside down. We inflate our BCs, and float until our feet touch the ceiling.
After a moment of vertigo, the world rotates; the change of perspective is a breathtaking transformation. The ceiling is our floor, cratered like the surface of the moon. The air pockets are a silver liquid that pools at our feet. We cup it in our hands; it flows through our fingertips and falls back to the ground. With buoyancy as our gravity, we bounce with each step, slowly returning to the surface like an Apollo astronaut. Some distance away, the circular opening of the cave hangs in our sky like a blue marble. We are no longer on anything recognizable as Earth.
We explore for a minute or a day; time no longer passes in a comprehensible way. The sound of breathing is finally punctuated by high pitched beeps; our dive computers are signaling it is time to leave. The chill of the water is taking its toll, but we moderate our ascent. Rising too quickly risks the bends, or a pulmonary embolism.
Our alien landscape sinks away below us, and we return to the bright, clear waters just below the surface. 15 feet away, we stop; our computers don’t advise a decompression stop, but our tables do, and we are risk-averse divers. 5 minutes later we break surface, and the senses return: the sounds of nature, the warmth of the sun, the smell of the breeze and the plethora of colors. To an alien world and back again, in under a half hour.