Throughout history, humankind has been fascinated by places that are beyond their normal reach.
Early seafarer's struck out across the oceans to find places unknown. As the map of the earth unfolded, adventurers took to the mountains and the skies - climbing higher, sailing farther, and soaring into the vastness of space. Society has always placed a great value conquering the unknown. I recall as a child watching the astronauts with great fascination as they stepped on the moon. Every child in my class had dreams of flying into space or following Jacques Cousteau into the depths.
In the history of humankind's discovery of the world around them, explorer's have been limited by technology and a finite supply of provisions. Mountain climbers are challenged by limited resources and the time pressure of battling the elements. Astronauts are restricted to short excursions from the safe environment of their spacecraft. Seafarers must carry adequate supplies to allow for long passages across unpredictable waters. In the remote Resurgence of Hauatla, Mexico, my husband Paul and I were halted by passage that went too deep to be safely explored on air. In the deep caves of the Yucatan, we have been limited by availability of exotic gases and the support to carry gear far into the jungle.
In our everyday diving activities, we are always rushing against the decompression clock, trying to speed our way through the cave to limit our hang time. Our aspirations have always been to reach further, but our methodologies have limited us. Consequently, I have always thought of exploration as more of a technology puzzle than an act of great heroism or athleticism. My goals have always been to find the tools to make my activities safer and easier.
For the last several years I have been engaged in a learning curve that came to fruition during the United States Deep Caving Team's Wakulla2 Project in North Florida. For three months, Paul and I were on site at Wakulla Springs completely engrossed in the most exciting adventure of our lives. Over 150 international volunteers assisted with the Wakulla2 Project.
It was a great convergence of diverse personalities that fostered a dynamic and inspiring undertaking. Friendships were made, ideas were exchanged, and a page of history was unquestionably scribed.
In 1995, at a crude base camp at the Hauatla Resurgence, I first learned about Dr. Bill Stone's dreams to return to Wakulla Springs. He had a vision of revolutionary equipment and techniques that would shape the next generation of cave exploration. I was riveted by his description of a mapping device that could plot the cave in infinite detail in zero visibility.
I knew at that moment, I was going to do everything in my power to prepare for participation in the Wakulla2 Project.
At the time I had only bench tested the Cis-Lunar MK-4 Rebreather. The fantastic mapping device existed only on paper and the scooters and lights were simply conceptual.
Modems, film crews, and pizza delivery
Almost four years later I arrived on site on a foggy November night ready to greet volunteers, some of whom I had only met through the internet. Together, we assembled an enormous infrastructure that made me feel even further removed from the jungle expeditions of my past. With line-ups each morning at the modem line, daily tours, film crews, and pizza delivery - this was a very different expedition.
On the third day of the project I was interviewed by the National Geographic Television crew and asked about my personal goals for the project. My answer surprised them. Even though the project was in full steam, I had no idea about how far I would go in Wakulla. The only personal goals I had were to help with the team's objective of successfully producing the three-dimensional digital map. The technology was new, I had never dived Wakulla and there were still a lot of pieces to come together.
Their second inquiry pertained to pressures I must have felt being the only female exploration diver on the team. I explained that I perceived no pressure from my team-mates. As a woman, I was applauded for participating. No other female had completed these sorts of extended range profiles at roughly 100 meters of depth in a cave. This was the cutting edge.
Brave new world
I realized that this was the first time in diving history that technology no longer imposed limits on human endeavor. Suddenly we were thrust into a brave new world that challenged us to concede to fascinating and fresh ideas. We proved that our consumables gave us a range beyond our wildest dreams. Our scooters were rated for a 20-25 km round trip. Our revolutionary lights made the cave look like a fully lit football stadium for a six hour duration. The mental hurdle was yielding to a new methodology and encouraging yourself to dream about dives that you previously felt were unachievable. So I vowed to approach each day with an open mind to challenge myself and try something new.
For the first several weeks, I added a new component or task to my diving regimen every day. Driving endless open water circuits, we rehearsed every potential crisis that we could conceive of. Team divers would simulate emergencies for us as we motored around the basin for hours. If we had traveled 2,000 meters at the time that a supervisor told us to practice a full electronics failure and a loss of two scooters, then we were expected to deal with the situation and motor back 2,000 meters in the opposite direction. By the time we had completed our simulation dives, all of the possible failures had been rehearsed. There was no question that I was ready to complete a mission in the cave. I had a new confidence and excitement about Wakulla Springs and the technology that we had embraced.
The chill of winter set in and we were finally ready to run full-scale operations. Early missions were spent familiarizing with the cave and patching missing and rerouted guidelines. We also installed a network of safety bottles and radio-location coils. Every dive was a working dive with specific tasks that needed to be accomplished in order to complete our project goal - the production of our three-dimensional map.
Each diver was equipped with a primary Cis-Lunar Fatman Scooter or Digital Wall Mapper and a back-up Thin Man Scooter for propulsion. On our backs we wore the Cis-Lunar MK-5P Electronically-Controlled Rebreather with two 100 cubic foot off board bailout cylinders. We carried a small 13 cubic foot tank of argon for inflation and two primary HID lights. In addition, we often carried at least two aluminum stage tanks to leave in the cave, reflective beacons, radio-location coils, battery packs and sometimes a video camera. The 200-300 kg load was perfectly neutral and balanced.
Jill driving the Cis-Lunar FatMan DPV
Photographer: Richard Nordstrom
The Cis-Lunar MK-5P Rebreather
The Cis-Lunar MK-5P is a fully-closed circuit, mixed-gas, electronically controlled rebreather.
The unit contains two small cylinders of onboard gas which are adequate for most types of diving activities. With additional offboard supplies it is the safest option for technical dives in overhead environments.
>One of the most desirable features is the patented hydrophobic membrane which protects the absorbent material from water, thus preventing the possibility of a "caustic cocktail."
Another interesting feature is the triple level of redundancy in computers and power supply. Even with a complete failure of all electronics and batteries, the unit works with very simple manual controls.
During the entire Wakulla Project, there was never a failure which required an abort from the cave or a scenario where divers needed to switch to open circuit bailout.
On the indignity of being a woman...
I am frequently asked how I manage to do such long dives without having a wee in my suit! During my mission dives, I had to resort to adult nappies but was anxious to get rid of the heavy load as soon as I was safely inside our transfer capsule.
During an early mission, I arrived inside the capsule after eight hours in the water. I looked around for my wee-bucket and discovered to my horror that it was gone! I called through the comms system and asked my mates what had happened. They laughed and said, "we can't help it if you are anatomically inadequate!" They insisted that I share buckets with my male partner since there wasn't enough room in the capsule for two buckets. Since he had a one gallon juice jug with a one inch opening, I decided this wasn't going to do.
I got my revenge by using the plastic container that stored our magazines in the chamber. The next day, the plastic magazine container was gone and thanks to John Buxton, my wee-bucket never went missing again!
Jill with her husband
(and top dive bloke)
Photo: Richard Nordstrom
- Jill's dive with Brian Kakuk set a new woman's world record for deep cave penetration.
- Jill's husband Paul and partner Jason Mallinson later picked up their work and added over 300 meters of line in continuing upstream and downstream passage during a clean-up dive at the end of the Wakulla2 Project.
- Although wide open tunnel beckoned them, their work will need to be continued by future explorers at Wakulla.
Find out more about the Wakulla2 project by visiting www.wakula2.org
Further details about Cis-Lunar can be found at www.cis-lunar.com
Diving into the record books
I had many memorable dives during the project, but one in particular stands out in regards to the new state of mind I experienced at Wakulla Springs. Brian Kakuk and I were given the task of "leapfrogging" radio beacons through B Tunnel. We departed with the full package of equipment including four extra cylinders to drop at the far end of the line. On our trip into the cave we placed a radio location coil at approximately 2,000 meters of penetration. The radio-location coils are powered with a battery pack similar to that of a primary cave diving light. The coil itself is a fat hoola-hoop sized magnet. When the battery pack is activated, the coil emits a magnetic induction field that can be sensed through several hundred feet of rock. Surface crew can then track the magnetic signature and determine an exact location of the cave conduit in relation to the overlaying topography. The critical issue when deploying a coil is that the unit be perfectly leveled before it is powered up. This can take up to ten minutes to accomplish.
After triggering the first coil Brian and I continued into the cave. We deployed marker buoys along the way to indicate future sights for coil locations. We were given a time allotment of two and a half hours, at which point we were asked to set a coil at our maximum penetration, fire it up and turn the dive.
We reached the end of the line within two hours and worked on setting up our second coil. The floor of the room was composed of extremely fine clay sediment and we managed to reduce visibility to near zero during our set-up procedures. We had twenty minutes to spare on our dive plan, so we set out in search of virgin passage.
Brian and I doubled back in the room and peeked over the top of a large breakdown boulder. Hiding behind the boulder, lay clear virgin passage just waiting for us. Brian eagerly unclipped his reel and I yelled, "go, go, go!" As he broke into the blue water, I just kept pushing him along and removed all of his extraneous gear. I detached his back-up scooter, and four marker buoys to lighten his load before he recognized that I was stripping him down. As he pushed on, I continued to install reflective beacons for the follow-up run with the mapper. We spun down to the last few feet on our reel in a large room just as our time limit was up. We had installed over 300 meters in new passage. As we turned the dive, our tasks had just begun. We still needed to execute three more coil placements before we could leave the cave.
On our exit run we picked up the coil that we had set at 2,000 meters with the assumption that our surface radio expert, Brian Pease, had found the location. We carefully turned off the unit, hooked it on my scooter and moved it to a new spot. After once again leveling the unit, we fired it up and sat back to relax for twenty minutes, knowing that the location team would be tracking us overhead. We completed this sequence twice more before making our exit.
The Wakulla Effect
When I look back on that dive, I think one of the most incredible sensations was our lack of time pressure. I would never have conceived of sitting at 100 meters for twenty minutes at a time doing nothing but waiting. During our waits, I took the time to make notes while details were fresh in my head. I felt comfort knowing that I had only used about 10 cubic feet of gas at that point in the dive. My first primary light was only half exhausted. I had consumed about one third of the duration of my CO2 absorbent. I had ample open circuit bailout gas on my body and stockpiled in the cave. My back-up tables indicated that I was approaching saturation and the decompression would vary little if I stayed for another hour or two or more. The entire scenario created a completely new peace of mind that I called the "Wakulla Effect."
In the end, our bottom time approached five hours at 100 meters. Our decompression started at 70 meters, just beyond the view of the deep video monitor we had established. Once we arrived at 50 meters, an anxious support team dropped down to lessen our load of equipment. Exploration diver, Andreas (Matt) Matthes passed me a slate with three questions that asked, "How was your dive? How is your canister holding up?" and, "What do you want on your pizza?" I gave him our empty reel and just smiled.
After a total of nine and a half hours in the water, we were picked up by our pressurized Personnel Transfer Capsule at 30 meters. We were hoisted to the surface and locked in to our "Deco Hilton." We finally emerged from the pressurized chamber after completing our dive which spanned 21 hours.
As cave explorers step carefully into the next millennium of discovery, there are many lessons to be learned from the Wakulla Effect. Confidence in technology can be extraordinary, yet we must be careful to not become overly self-assured. Simulation dives are a strategic part of dive planning. All potential failures must be rehearsed and solutions must become second nature. Technology is not a replacement for adequate training. Every mission must be approached with the idea that the team might have to deal with the worst possible scenario. No individual is invincible. No equipment is flawless. No team can save you from your own decisions.
So I resolved to greet each day with a careful balance of two notions. My first reflection was the most sobering foundation of my daily regimen. Each morning as I parked myself at my laptop computer in Mission Control, I took a moment to glance up at a bright red poster overhead. Richard Pyle had sent us a solemn message which simply read, "Complacency Kills." My second reflection was to recall an enlightening discussion that my husband and I had with astronaut Gene Cernan; the last man to walk on the surface of the moon. He contended that the word "impossible" must be removed from mankind's vocabulary. "There should not be boundaries on the limits of man's aspirations to explore new frontiers. As technology improves, the essence of human endeavor will always be expanded."