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The Taming Continues: The Peacock to Baptizing Connection
In August 2010, James Toland and Agnes Milowka made the connection between Peacock Springs and Baptizing Spring. The connection between the two springs extends the Peacock Springs Cave System by more than 10,000 feet (3km), adding significantly to its already wide 28,000 feet (8.5km) passage.
In this interview, Agnes and James share the thrill of adventure and exploration as they pursue their first connection.
Many people believe that everything in Florida has been discovered and explored. How is it possible for you to find a new cave, even in popular systems like Peacock Springs?
James: Many divers from the Florida cave diving community focus on exploration around the world, but I think it’s important to focus on exploration in our own backyard – a little thing I like to call tailgate diving.
There are many more caves here waiting to be explored, and with the evolution of diving equipment and divers alike comes the ability to make deeper and longer dives. It opens up new and exciting opportunities that have been overlooked or never thought of before.
Agnes: I think it depends on the character. Too many people believe that everything is lined up and explored and they are only too happy to follow the lines that are already there. While there is a culture of exploration in Florida, famous caves like Peacock are nowhere to be seen these days. I think it just goes to show that the possibilities are endless and the potential is still there, even in the famous and often dived caves.
How did you find the lead that eventually led to Baptism?
James: Ag ran into some leads with one of his regular dive buddies and hit the jackpot. After confirming that the lead is a go it on. He contacted me and said let’s put a line; It was clear that he really had to twist my arm.
Agnes: I really enjoyed the dive with another friend and we decided to check out a section of the Peacock that I had never seen before – the water source tunnel for the Peanut Line.
As it got smaller and smaller I knew we were nearing the end of the line and I was curious to see what happened next. Finally the line ended and as I suspected the cave continued. A little cramped and a little muddy but definitely still going. I tied up and used the bits of line I had left on my reel to see what lay ahead. I put 200 feet (60m) of line on that dive and decided it was a goer.
So you found the lead and it looks promising. Talk us through your next dive.
James: A week ago Ag and I changed, and yes, we were armed with more line and more gas. The mission is simple; put all the lines.
I was given the lead again and we hit it off. One reel, two reels, and then before we know it the third reel comes out. Cave decided to throw a loop into the mix and began to break up and separate in several directions, so the T’s began to fly in. We were able to add over 1000 feet of line. In the end the dive was 280 minutes, but at an average depth of 35 feet (10m), we only decoyed for 10 minutes.
Agnes: We have more lines these days and are equipped with two reels each. Nothing can stop us this time! We knew the dive was long, so even though I’m not a morning person, I got up early. By 8 am we were there, waiting for the park gate to open.
It was an incredible dive. We just put in reel after reel and the cave doesn’t seem to stop. Finally, the way forward became less clear and we had to start investigating different options and leads here and there. In the end, it didn’t go places, but we felt we had a successful dive. You can’t sneeze at casting more than 1000 feet (300m) of line in a day.
When did you know you were headed for Baptism?
James: We started getting suspicious on our second dive. After breaking through the Mud Flats, the low mud area at the start of our exploration, we started looking for these green woolly mats of algae flowing through the tunnels. We noticed this on the previous dive but didn’t think much of it. On this dive we saw a lot of it all over the new line we put on. It’s also the whole peanut line that is very slow. As we progressed through the cave it gathered in larger masses and more frequently. I mean there are big piles of this stuff. Then we started looking for dead oak leaves in small clumps. All signs of an opening.
Agnes: We knew we had to be close to a channel because of all the green puffy algae. I remember seeing a lot of khen at the entrance to the Baptistry when I first explored it. Beginning to understand that we are heading for Baptism; where does all the flow come from?
I still remember standing on the edge of the Baptism with James a few years ago and speculating and talking about where the water was going.
Anyway we think it’s headed for Peacock but we’re not sure if someone can physically fit all the way. Well, here’s our chance to find out.
Tell us more about the moment you connected.
James: Ag is the leader and he has the great honor of tying the lines at both ends. At the mark we chose was the most likely, he placed the reel and 200 feet (60m) later there was the end of the line from the bottom of the Baptizing Springs. Ag tied that last and we kept pushing forward to make sure we actually did it. There was no question in our minds as we entered the ravine just below the entrance to the Baptistery. We couldn’t get out, unfortunately, because the very strict entry restrictions were filled due to previous floods. But we saw the light of day and after a little digging it opened up nicely. We returned the next day to do the traverse proper.
Agnes: Unbelievable! I saw my old line and my blue ‘Ag’ arrow and knew we made it! I am happy. I might have done a little dance right then and there, if not physically, certainly internally.
It is nice to return to the old and familiar territory of downstream Baptizing. I’m glad to see my line is in good shape and not buried, despite all the flooding in the last year or so. The cave suddenly became part of a bigger picture. By making the connection to the entrance pool of Baptizing we suddenly joined Peacock in the upstream section of Baptizing. This means that the Peacock Cave System is suddenly over 10,000 feet (3km) long!
The next dive, the swim was a formality but it was also exciting. Descending at one spring and exiting at another, the 4600ft (1400m) elevation above the river is spectacular. A diver who physically swims the channels demonstrates the hydrological link between the two springs and provides much food for thought. If a diver can swim in the water, pollution and contamination can also occur, and it is worth noting that the water that flows through the Peacock comes a long way and everything that happens to it upstream has an impact on the water quality of the park .
Bob Schulte is an important part of your team. What is his role in connection?
James: The problem is that before the new Ag exploration line was laid, there was a section of the line that was not knotted, about 400 feet (120m) of it. Ag and I tried to get the data with a tape measure going out once but couldn’t because of the zero viz. This prevents us from plotting all the survey data as a map, so we have no real view of where we are going. Ag went back to Australia for a while, so at this point we took Bob out for fun and games. He and I retrieved the missing survey data from the old line and explored the rest of the cave in more detail.
Bob brings some unique skills to the table. This guy burns some mad skills to survey, map and put together all of our mumbo jumbo. Bob will be impressing the cave diving world with his maps in the near future and he is doing an amazing job – he is a must have on any project.
Agnes: Before actually making the connection dive, James and I spent a full dive blindly chasing leads. This is very frustrating; we knew we were close but didn’t know which lead was the magic. We found all kinds of interesting things, but really we followed the connection.
It wasn’t until Bob compiled the survey notes and created a map that our next step became clear. Sure enough, when everything is put it is simple; less than 250 feet (75m) later we hit the mark and made the connection. The map makes all the difference and Bob’s map is amazing. Meanwhile, just for the record, I have an ax to grind for anyone who puts in a line and doesn’t tie a knot first!
Is this section of the cave unique? Is there anything cool in there or is everything down and muddy?
James: The cave is some of the best diving in north Florida. Fossils litter the trails throughout the new exploration. After jumping from the main line the cave has a completely new look. The walls have no scars. The floors are full of all kinds of bones, from spines, jaws, teeth and regular long bones, to areas that look like a seafood buffet while crab claws and ends stick out from the walls. It looks like what a cave looks like before being robbed of all its treasures and diver traffic.
The trails go from a large borehole cave with a sandy bottom to a low-tight clayey clay. Some passages are almost complete rock top to bottom. The flow rate is interesting and some areas have an unusual amount of flow compared to other parts of the Peacock. Then other areas have little or no flow, especially where the cave begins to exit the spider’s web. These areas are usually low and silty and have zero visibility at the exit.
Agnes: I’m a big fan of Peacock in general. I think this is one of the most unique and unique caves in Florida. I think Baptism will always be special, because it was my first attempt at real and extensive exploration and I found many virgin caves there. Combining these two caves and expanding the Peacock System is a unique experience.
As James said, the amount of fossil remains in the cave is impressive and there is a lot of archeological material around the Baptizing Spring itself. This is a fascinating system on many levels. The Baptizing Spring has a rich history dating back to the Timucuan Indians and the Spanish invasion in the 17th century. Then there is hydrology; There are still many mysteries surrounding the flow of water around the Peacock. Finding this huge amount in the new cave and revealing one more small piece of the puzzle was great.
But some parts of the cave are actually low and muddy. The entire Peacock to Baptizing run is an advanced sidemount cave dive and while not off limits, it does require good gas management and a love of tight spots, thick silt and zero visibility.
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