In August 2010, James Toland and Agnes Milowka made the connection between Peacock Springs and Baptizing Spring. The connection between the two springs extended the Peacock Springs Cave System by over 10,000 feet (3km), adding significantly to its already extensive 28,000 feet (8.5km) of passage.
In this interview, Agnes and James will share the thrill of adventure and exploration as they pursued their first connection.
Many people assume that everything in Florida has been found and explored. How is it possible that you guys are finding new cave, even in popular systems such as Peacock Springs?
James: Many divers from the Florida cave diving community are focusing on exploration around the world, but I think it’s important to focus on exploration in our own back yard – a little something I like to call tailgate diving.
There is still a lot of cave here waiting to be pushed, and with the evolution of dive gear and divers alike comes the ability to do deeper and longer dives. This opens up new and exciting opportunities that were overlooked or never considered in the past.
Agnes: I think it comes down to attitude. Too many people assume everything has been lined and explored and they are only too happy to follow the lines already there. While there is a culture of exploration in Florida, popular caves like Peacock don’t get a look these days. I guess it just goes to show that the possibilities are endless and the potential is still there, even in popular and often-dived caves.
How did you find the lead that eventually led to Baptizing?
James: Ag was off running down some leads with one of her regular dive buddies and hit the jackpot. After confirming the lead was a go it was on. She contacted me and said let’s lay some line; obviously she really had to twist my arm.
Agnes: I was actually doing a fun dive with another buddy and we decided to check out a section of Peacock I hadn’t seen before – the water source tunnel for the Peanut Line.
As it got tighter and smaller I knew we were coming up to the end of the line and I was super curious to see what happened next. Finally the line ended and as I suspected the cave kept on going. It was a bit tight and quite muddy but it was definitely still going. I tied off and used what scraps of line I had left on my reel to check out what lay ahead. I laid 200 feet (60m) of line on that dive and decided it was a goer.
So you found the lead and it looked promising. Talk us through your next dive.
James: A week later Ag and I were at it again, and yes, we were armed with more line and more gas. The mission was simple; put all the line in.
I was graciously given lead again and we hit it. One reel, two reels, and then before we knew it the third reel was coming off. The cave decided to throw a loop into the mix and started breaking up and splitting off in several directions, so the T’s started flying in. We managed to add over 1000 feet of line. In the end the dive was 280 minutes, but with an average depth of 35 feet (10m), we only incurred 10 minutes of deco.
Agnes: We did have more line this time and were armed with two reels each. Nothing was going to stop us this time! We knew the dive was going to be a long one, so despite not being a morning person, I got up early. By 8am we were there, waiting for the gates of the park to open.
It was an unbelievable dive. We just put down one reel after another and it didn’t seem the cave was going to stop. Finally, the way forward became less obvious and we had to start investigating various options and leads here and there. In the end, these did not go places, but we felt we had a successful dive. You can’t sneeze at dropping more than 1000 feet (300m) of line in a day.
When did you know you were heading for Baptizing?
James: We started having suspicions on our second dive. After bursting through the Mud Flats, the low muddy portion of the beginning of our exploration, we started finding these green hairy mats of algae flowing through the tunnels. We noticed it the previous dive but didn’t think much of it. On this dive we saw it in great abundance all over the new line that we put in. It was also all through the peanut line in very faint wisps. As we progressed in the cave it accumulated in larger masses and more frequently. I mean there were large clumps of this stuff. Then we started finding dead oak leaves in small clusters. All the telltale signs of an opening.
Agnes: We knew we had to be close to an opening because of all the green puffy algae. I remember seeing lots of if at the entrance to Baptizing when I first explored it. It started to make sense that we were heading towards Baptizing; where else would all the flow be coming from?
I still remember standing by the banks of Baptizing with James a couple of years ago and speculating and discussing where all the water was going.
Even then we figured it was heading to Peacock but we weren’t sure whether a human could physically fit all the way through. Well, here was our chance to find out.
Tell us more about the moment you connected.
James: Ag was in the lead and she had the grand honor of tying in the lines at both ends. At the mark we chose would be the most likely, she put the reel in and 200 feet (60m) later there was the end of the line from downstream Baptizing Springs. Ag tied that end off and we continued to push forward to make sure we had indeed done it. There was no question in our minds as we entered the pit just downstream of the entrance to Baptizing. We were unable to exit, unfortunately, as the already super tight entrance restriction was filled in because of past floods. We did however see daylight and after a bit of digging opened it up a good deal. We returned the following day to do the traverse proper.
Agnes: It was incredible! I saw my old line and my blue ‘Ag’ arrow and knew we had done it! I was thrilled. I might have done a little dance right then and there, if not physically, certainly on the inside.
It was nice to go back through old and familiar territory in downstream Baptizing. I was happy to see my line was in good condition and wasn’t buried, even after all the floods over the past year or so. The cave was suddenly a part of a much larger picture. By making the connection through to the entrance pool of Baptizing we had suddenly joined Peacock with the upstream section of Baptizing. This meant that the Peacock Cave System was suddenly over 10,000 feet (3km) longer!
The next dive, the swim through was a formality but it was also quite thrilling. To descend into one spring and come out another, 4600ft (1400m) farther upstream was quite remarkable. A diver physically swimming through the passages demonstrates the hydrological link between the two springs and provides much food for thought. If a diver can swim through the water, so can pollution and contamination, and it’s worth noting that the water that flows through Peacock comes a long way and everything that happens to it upstream has an effect on the quality of the water at the park.
Bob Schulte is an important part of your team. What was his role in regards to the connection?
James: The problem was that before the new exploration line Ag laid, there was a section of line that was not knotted, around 400 feet (120m) of it. Ag and I tried to get the data with a tape measure coming out once but couldn’t because of zero viz. This prevented us from plotting all the survey data out as a map, so we never had a real perspective of where exactly we were heading. Ag went back to Australia briefly, so at this point we brought Bob in on the fun and games. He and I got the missing survey data from the old line and surveyed the rest of the cave in more detail.
Bob brings some unique skills to the table. This dude is on fire with some mad skills in surveying, mapping and putting all our mumbo jumbo together. Bob is going to be tantalizing the cave diving world with his maps in the near future and he does absolutely amazing work – he is a must have on any project.
Agnes: Before actually making the connection dive, James and I spent a whole dive blindly chasing down leads. It was so frustrating; we knew we were close but could not figure out which lead was the magic one. We found all sorts of interesting things, but really we were after the connection.
It was only once Bob compiled the survey notes and created a map that our next move was made clear. Sure enough, once it was all laid out it was simple; less than 250 feet (75m) later we hit the mark and made the connection. The map made all the difference and Bob’s map is awesome. Meanwhile, just for the record, I have an axe to grind with anyone who lays line and doesn’t knot it first!
Is this section of the cave unique? Is there anything really cool in there or is it all low and muddy?
James: The cave is by far some of north Florida’s best diving. Fossils litter the passages throughout the new exploration. After jumping off the main line the cave takes on a whole new look. The walls are without scars. The floors are littered with all types of bones, from vertebrae, jaws, teeth and regular long bones, to areas that look like a seafood buffet as crab claws and extremities stick out of the walls. It looks the way a cave should look before the raping of all her treasures and diver traffic.
Passages range from a sizable borehole cave with sandy bottoms through to low restrictive muddy clay bottoms. Some passages are almost complete rock top to bottom. The flow dynamics are interesting and some areas have an exceptional amount of flow in comparison to the rest of Peacock. Then other areas have little to no flow, especially where the cave starts to spider web out. These areas are typically low and silty and have zero visibility on exit.
Agnes: I am a huge fan of Peacock in general. I think it is one of the most extraordinary and incredible caves in Florida. In my mind Baptizing will always be special, as it was my first venture into real and extensive exploration and I found so much virgin cave there. To join these two caves together and to expand the Peacock System was an extraordinary experience.
Like James said, the amount of fossil remains in the cave is impressive and there is much archaeological material around Baptizing Spring itself. It is a fascinating system on so many levels. Baptizing Spring has this rich history dating all the way back to the Timucuan Indians and the Spanish invasion in the 17th century. Then there is the hydrology; there are still many mysteries surrounding the water flow around Peacock. To find this huge amount of new cave and reveal one more little piece of the puzzle is really great.
But some bits of the cave are indeed low and muddy. The whole Peacock to Baptizing run is an advanced sidemount cave dive and while not off limits, certainly requires good gas management and a love of tight places, thick silt and zero visibility.