We took a short weekend trip to Vortex Spring near Ponce De Leon, Florida in early 2017. The diving is wonderful at Vortex thanks to clear water and consistent temperature year round. The site itself is fairly small. Certified cave divers can get plenty of adventure at Vortex but for us recreational guys, a day at Vortex is plenty of time to see it all.
We hadn’t anticipated revisiting Vortex this year since there’s so many diving options in Florida. Necessity led us back though and we needed a known site where we could test our Ocean Technology Systems “Guardian” full face masks. A couple months ago on our trip to Michigan, we were doing wreck dives from a boat in Lake Charlevoix. The first day, everything went swimmingly and we had two excellent dives on “The Elizabeth” and “The Keuka.” Our first dive of day two was another wreck called the “John P” and that’s where things took a turn.
The Vortex Spring Test
The captain set anchor near the wreck site and told us we were just south of where it lay in 60 feet of water. Ben and I hopped in and followed the anchor line down to the sandy bottom. No wreck was in sight, so we set a compass heading for due north and started kicking along. In case you’re wondering what lives at the bottom of Lake Charlevoix, the answer is: nothing! We swam five minutes out, looking around trying to find the wreck. No signs of it anywhere. I signaled Ben to turn around and head back to the anchor. This was part of our dive plan. In case we couldn’t find the wreck, we would slide back up the anchor line and try again or hit a different site.
So we head straight south and start kicking. Visibility was about 20-25 feet. After another five minutes or so we stop and look around. I turn to Ben and hit him on the underwater comms, to see if he wanted to run a quick search pattern for the line. Before he could answer, I felt like I couldn’t breathe and had the urge to head toward the surface. I tugged at his arm and gave the ascent signal. He could tell something was up so we started ascending to our safety stop at 20 feet. After about 60 seconds of feeling like a fish out of water, the decrease in depth seemed to help and my breathing and cognition returned to normal. We finished our safety stop without issue and slowly surfaced. Our little free water ascent turned out to be within 50 feet of the boat so we were pretty happy with that.
Back on the boat, I took a few minutes to recover but all was well. We headed out to “The Keuka” and did another dive there. This one was to about 40 feet. The dive went well but I had a couple moments where I was sucking on my regulator and not getting enough air. I ascended about ten feet got comfortable again and finished the dive. If things had continued, I planned to switch to my backup regulator and mask or signal Ben to end the dive.
After some discussion, we concluded I was experiencing the side effects of not being able to blow off expended CO2. This seemed unusual because we had been diving the masks for months and had them much deeper in our trip to the Bahamas without issue. I noticed it breathed heavier at 100 feet but I didn’t feel starved for air. Ben was having some breathing issues with his mask as well on the Charlevoix dives. They weren’t as severe as mine, but we took them into our local dive shop to have them checked out by a certified OTS tech. Upon initial inspection, our tech called OTS and explained what was happening with our masks. The tech at OTS told him to go no further and ship them back immediately to be tested by a machine that simulates breathing at depth.
So he boxed them up and out they went. A few weeks later we got our masks back with two bags of parts. Our tech spoke directly with the lead tech at OTS who had done a full overhaul on the masks. We got to speak to him directly at DEMA 2017 and he remembered doing the work! Basically, my mask was outside of spec and failed the breathability test. Ben’s mask was at the high end of normal and needed the same work done to it. At the end of the day, they completely serviced the masks at no cost and gave us dampening kits to quiet the noise they make underwater. We really couldn’t be happier with the service we got from OTS. The only thing left to do now was test the masks.
Which brings us back to Vortex Spring. We drove six hours north to test in known water. Once we got there, we geared up and dropped in. We kicked our way over to the mouth of the cave and dropped down to 58 feet where we kicked around for a few minutes to breathe the masks and shoot video. The masks felt much, much better and breathed easily. We shot some video, did some lazy laps, took a selfie, and surfaced after a 40 minute dive. Totally enjoyable.
A big takeaway from this experience is to always remember that when you’re on SCUBA, you’re on life support. Even if you’ve thoroughly tested your gear and used it and used it, things can still go wrong. Always practice your skills and keep them sharp. Remember to keep breathing, calm down, take a breath, and think you’re way through any issues. Cooler heads prevail. Plan for contingencies and emergencies. If they do happen, you’ll be much better equipped to handle it before they spiral out of control.