One of LAMP’s main educational programs, and an important part of our First Coast Maritime Archaeology Project, is the MARC High School program– Maritime Archaeology Research Class. For three semesters, LAMP and FPAN archaeologists have been visiting a students enrolled in this class at Pedro Menendez High School on a weekly basis, to teach the basics of archaeology and maritime archaeology in particular. Eight of the students in this year’s class are participating in the optional scuba certification aspect of the class. For the entire semester the students have participated in weekly pool sessions at the local dive shop, Sea Hunt Scuba, where they have been taught by LAMP staff. In order for these students to earn their NAUI basic open water scuba diver certification, they must demonstrate mastery of the basic scuba skills during a series of one snorkel dive and four scuba dives.

In order to ensure a well-rounded training experience and prepare these young divers for a range of diving environments, we generally plan to conduct the first two checkout dives in a freshwater spring, and the final two dives from a boat in the ocean. So yesterday we traveled to Alexander Springs in the Ocala National Forest and met our group of eight student divers–seven Menendez High students and one FPAN archaeologist–for their first open water scuba experience.

Menendez High students listen to the morning briefing on site at Alexander Springs. Behind them is a first magnitude spring, pumping out more than 100 cubic feet of clear, fresh water from the Florida aquifer every second. From left to right, students Landon, Chuck, Jordan, Kyle, and Mike.

Standing, Mike on left and Keegan on right. Seated, Kyle in back and Chuck in front.

“Time to get suited up, divers!” says Chuck, LAMP Director and NAUI diving instructor.

Volunteer John Brunswick, known affectionately to the LAMP crew as “Tank” due to his enthusiasm for hauling dive tanks, gets his wetsuit on and neoprene hood in place. Tank will be serving as a divemaster in the water, helping the instructor keep an eye on the students.

LAMP Director of Archaeology Dr. Sam Turner will also be working as a divemaster today. While Tank is divemastering in the water, Sam will serve as safety diver on shore, and vice-versa. Here Sam is outfitted in his drysuit underwear. This insulating layer is worn inside the drysuit, which keeps the diver sealed off from the water. While the spring remains around 72 degrees F year-round, it is a cold day (high of 59 and freezing temperatures the night before) so this will help him keep warm in and out of the water.

Chuck is also diving dry. The crushed neoprene drysuit he is stepping into forms the water-tight shell which keeps his body dry and allows the insulating underwear to keep him warm. Since Chuck will be in the water for most of the day (six dives in a row) the suit is required for thermal protection, even in 70 degree water.

Jay is a new volunteer at LAMP. He was certified as a diver back in the 1970s, but will be helping out today as part of the surface support team. His jobs include managing equipment when not in use, helping log each dive, helping divers enter and exit the water and don and doff gear, and anything else required to assist ten divers on six dives.

LAMP archaeologist Brendan Burke is the designated Dive Supervisor today, and as such he is in charge of the overall safety of the diving operations and runs the surface operation. Here he prepares the official dive log which will be used to keep track of each diver’s underwater time, starting and ending tank pressures, and maximum depths for each dive.

The first team of divers enters the water, and Chuck gives a final briefing before we start the first dive. We have divided up our students into two groups, in order to maximize safety by lowering our in-water supervisor to student ratio. Team 1 has four student divers, one instructor and one divemaster, while Team 2 has only three student divers.

The first dive is a snorkel dive only, with no scuba tank or regulator. Snorkeling skills are essential to any diver and to any scientist working in the marine environment. During the snorkeling excursion, students not only explore the margins of the spring but demonstrate skills such as surface diving, snorkel clearing, and fin, weightbelt, and BC removal and replacement.

The students get their first glimpse at the aquatic life in the spring. Hovering over the layer of algae growing on limestone and sandy bottom are countless bass and bream.

The students enjoy the snorkeling but are ready for scuba! LAMP Archaeologist and Archaeological Conservator Christine Mavrick helps snorkelers hook up their tanks and regulators, while a parent looks on.

Floating effortlessly in the clear blue water, the students lead by their instructor and followed by their divemaster descend into the basin of the spring.

It is a beautiful sight. Once past the 40-foot wide fringe of aquatic grass the bottom falls away suddenly to reveal an open area of exposed and sand-covered limestone outcrops and boulders.

Water flows from a cavern opening near the center of the pool. The deepest part of the spring, right at the main outflowing vent, is about 27 feet. The area forms a sunlit trench that is 45 feet long and between 10 and 25 feet wide.

The instructor finds a sandy area for the group to settle and demonstrate the required skills. Chuck flashes the ok signal to each of his divers, each of whom will return the signal to indicate that they understand his query and are indeed ok.

One by one, each student must demonstrate the skills they have learned and practiced in hours of pool training sessions. Here Kyle removes his mask and prepares to replace it and clear it of water.

The instructor demonstrates the proper execution of each skill before having the students respond. Here Chuck shows one of two methods to recover the regulator in case it becomes knocked out of a diver’s mouth.

Chuck and student Mike Forgie share a single regulator in a simulated out-of-air buddy breathing emergency.

Here Chuck again simulates an out-of-air diver, and breathes from Amber’s backup regulator (octopus) during a controlled ascent to the surface. Amber Weiss is an archaeologist from the Florida Public Archaeology Network who is being certified as part of our ongoing partnership with FPAN.

After performing a battery of skills, including a simulated rescue of an unconscious diver including recovery and towing to shore while giving rescue breaths, the students have plenty of time to explore the spring on scuba. They get to observe more aquatic life, including this bream . . .

. . . and plenty of opportunities to practice buoyancy control, a vital skill to any diver. Poor buoyancy control in a spring such as this can quickly lead to a loss of visibility if divers kick up or touch the silty bottom.

In between dives, the students do their best to warm up while sharing excited stories of their first underwater experience. LAMP even provides hot chocolate for our freezing divers!

Say hi to divemaster Tank, who worked hard for three dives by keeping an eye on students, assisting when needed, and retrieving heavy weightbelts dropped during the simulated rescue exercises.

Group shot of Team 2 after the completion of all their required skill demonstrations. From left to right, Mike Forgie, Amber Weiss, Kyle, and Chuck Meide.

Amber out of the water after her final dive. She is tired after a hard day’s work, but she had loads of fun playing with the fishes!

The last to exit the water is instructor Chuck. He has been in the water almost all day, with only a one brief period on land between dives for less than 20 minutes. He even ate lunch in the spring! Because so much diving and the constant ascents and descents required for skill demonstrations creates significant decompression stress on the diver’s body, Chuck along with the LAMP divemasters breathed nitrox during their dives. This gas blend consists of 34% oxygen instead of the normal 21% found in air, and thus decreases the amount of nitrogen absorbed into the diver’s tissues throughout the day of breathing compressed gas underwater.

But the job isn’t done until everyone makes it home and all of the equipment is accounted for and secured. We used 20 tanks from Sea Hunt Scuba along with five LAMP nitrox tanks for the instructor and divemasters. Then there are buoyancy compensators, regulators, and wetsuits for 10 divers, with plenty of spares (some of which are now marked for repairs), two drysuits and underwear, repair tools and emergency equipment, and hundreds of pounds of lead weight. We stow everything in our dive locker for a final cleaning and sorting on Monday morning. Our dive locker is equipped with a dehumidifier which will help thoroughly dry the equipment so we can keep everything in good working condition. It is well after dark by the time we’ve finished securing the gear. A hard day’s work, but also a lot of fun!