VBTech Deep Dive in Florida
Over 2 years ago I was ask just how deep could I really dive with a goal in mind. I never really pondered that question before, all the deep wrecks that I had been pursuing had already been identified and offered only the challenge of the depth safely along with the joy I get from wreck diving. After 2 plan trips to FL to dive an unknown wreck in 460fsw had been canceled due to weather and current, Rick Atkins and I finely made the dive on March 1, 2001 with a huge amount of support, which I will detail.
The site which sits in 460-470fsw by bottom machine(the boat depth finder) was found by a local commercial fisherman several years ago. Capt. John a life long commercial fisherman and expert on the local currents had found this wreck. I cannot tell you his full name or boat as he does not want to be followed to his fishing sites. Over the years the tensions that caused fisherman and divers to be at odds were being put aside by some local dive Captains. Often telling the fisherman what they see on the dives, so the fisherman can earn a living a little easier. Fisherman by nature do not give up their sites as that is where they must go to catch the fish and do not want it over fished.
On one fishing trip Capt. John had an object hung on his grapnel when he brought it up, though he does not know what it was because it fell off the hook at the boat and he only got a quick look at it, then sank back down. The object having stirred Capt. John's interest caused him to ask my friend Capt. Leo could divers go that deep and did he know anyone that would.
It is well known that Capt. Leo does not run technical diving trips, but on special occasions he has done it for certain divers, once to take the WKPP to search for the 3 missing divers in the WPB accident and all other trips have been for me. His willingness to take me on these dives comes from several trips in which I came with other rec. divers and he never really knew anything about me and judged me on what he saw. Though I stayed within the boat rules all the time, he knew I did not like reefs. He is the most safety consensus Capt. I have ever seen.
Over time he has come to know me and we trust each others judgment, which lead him to ask me that question. He then told me about the wreck and plans were talked over, I do not take these deep dives very lightly, when the slightest thing goes wrong divers die at this depth, that list of names is long, I don't want my name on it. I understand that anything can happen, I do the best I can to ensure those that are there do not feel that anything is their fault should anything happen. Having picked the date for the dive, the plan was worked on. I asked Rick Atkins to dive with me, as I normally do to do the deeper depths.
The VBtech team was told of the dive and several stepped up to help do support. We also planned in other dives to the Skycliff and Hydro Atlantic on March 2, then others went to spend a week on the dive vessel "Sea Fever" and 4 of us stayed to dive with Capt. Leo an extra day to another unknown wreck at 70ft and came home.
Rick Atkins and Gary Sanderson drove down a day early to prepare for the dive. Dave Widen, Bill Ripley (who just completed his full cave from Steve Berman), Ike Bullock, Nancy Hite, and myself drove all night to get to FL in time for the dive at noon on the 1st. Capt. Leo had arranged for Capt. John to hook the wreck and have a ball on the line he uses as a marker when he fishes it. If the current was not strong we would go down the line, if it was we would go up current and drop on it.
Capt Leo also had Roger Harty a local EMT and diver on board to monitor us before,during, and after the dive. Roger, who also dives, did a great job as safety diver at the 20ft stop as he stayed very close to monitor us as we were on 02, that is where I believe the risk is the highest on these dives. He also made the chamber aware of the dive. Boyd Stewart, the DM for the boat also helped ease the stress with his playful humor. John Fine a diving writer was on board to cover the dive. A briefing was held over top "Dive Shop II", it covered all the possibilities and the plan. Each member of the team (both divers and support) was introduced and stated what their task for the dive was. A complete review of the dive plan, gas mixes, deco mixes, gas management, safety procedures, contingencies, and time sequences were covered.
Capt. John departed to go hook the wreck, we had our gear loaded and departed shortly after him. Capt. John hooked the wreck just like he said and it was clear there was a strong current, Ike Bullock tested the current to see if we could go down the line, he could not do it in a single tank, so we could not with stages and doubles. Capt. John had told us at the briefing that the site sometimes has a north current on top and a south current on the bottom. This would be bad as we could not hit the wreck by dropping on it up current and would only result in a bounce dive.
The current was plotted by GPS and sight of drop was planned for a descent time of 5-6 mins to the bottom, I had thought we would be there in about 4.5 mins, but chose not to use that time so not to miss over the wreck and have to swim into the current to get to the wreck at that depth should it take longer to get there. Capt. Leo set us up for the drop, Capt. John maintained his boat over the wreck and with the ball just behind him gave us the straight line sight we needed for the drop.
DIVE! DIVE! DIVE! was the call and we hit the water, Rick lead because he was pushing a video camera, I kept an eye on him because that is what should be done when a camera is involved and Ike followed us down to 130ft. At 2 mins and 200ft I made my gas switch as Rick watched, I did the same for him at 220ft. We pushed down, the descent rate was increasing, at 300ft it became very dark, at 400ft it got very cold. We started to put the brakes on, I past my plan depth of 450ft, 460ft, 470ft, at 483ft I leveled off and Rick touched the bottom at 490ft, we had to go to back up tables.
As most should know there is a 3% error in the UWATEC, Beuchat, and other fresh water calibrated depth gauges we use when in SW, I leave them in as a safety factor for these deep dives. With the depth reading of 490ft it is really only 475ft. There was no current at all on the bottom, I knew we had landed up current of the wreck, 4 mins to the bottom, faster than I thought. For the next 4-5 mins Rick filmed as I looked around for the wreck, I came over to him and called the dive, at 7-8 mins BT we started our assent. At around 400ft I could see bait fish in the distance, at 270ft we deployed Rick's Halcyon lift bag with my reel. I was told the bag hit the surface and then sank, caused a bit of stress on the boat, they had no way of knowing we were fine. I knew the bag sank and let the line slide through my fingers as we continued doing our 1 min stops.
Dave dropped down on our bubbles, with Gary just behind him, to check us out and we resent the bag up at 170ft and the thing sank again, the pressure relief valve would not reseat once the gas expanded in the bag. Dave scootered a permanent line over to us with a float ball on it for us to deco on, Jon lines were deployed to prevent us from sinking should we pass out for some reason. Dave and Gary had extra gas with them should we need it. We finished our deco with all divers taking turn to monitor us and removing used stages, the support team delivered our 50/50 and 02 to us, the running joke was that it been the most documented deco ever done, as most of time there were at least 4 divers in the water.
We boarded the boat "Deeper" with Capt. Leo and headed for the dock. The dive was much to big to keep quiet that morning and word had spread around the dock, as the boat rounded "Two Georges" at the end of the marina cheers could be heard from the patrons for our safe return. I was unaware that no one had ever tried a wreck dive that deep there before, which kind of surprised me.
Back at the dock, I talked to Capt John as he was very curious to what we saw and bottom condition. I told him what we saw and when I mentioned the bait fish he said were right at the wreck, that he was marking bait fish just in front of the wreck, our bag had surface right over the wreck the first time.
We all dived the wrecks "Skycliff" 200ft and "Hydro Atlantic" 170ft the next day with a 3 hour SI, I found the "Hydro Atlantic" a very nice dive and will do that one again for sure.
Rick Atkins mix 8/80 deco mixes 20/30 32% 50% 02
JT Barker mix 8/68 deco mixes 20/30 32% 50% 02
Thanks to all those who helped.