Blue skies, air temps in the 60s…. perfect Saturday football weather. Florida’s Route 27 provides a shortcut between Orlando and Tallahassee, where the Seminoles would be kicking off in a few hours against Miami. But we’d miss this game, because the same road also lead past Manatee Springs State Park, where some folks were getting together for a weekend of drysuit diving.
No, that’s not a typo. Drysuits. Florida. This pairing may see strange to those who equate diving dry to icebergs and penguins, but the reality is that I’ve been using a drysuit – in Florida – for nearly 20 years. In the sake of full disclosure, my preference for diving dry is usually confined to the caves, where even 70-degree spring water can leach body heat over the course of a 3-hour dive-and-deco profile.
Traditionally, Florida’s drysuit community was similarly composed primarily of cave divers. But in recent years, drysuits have also gone from a curiosity to an accepted fact on offshore dive boats – at least in the winter months when cold fronts bring chill north winds and significant thermoclines appear at depth.
Manatee Springs offers divers a small but picturesque basin where clear, fresh water wells up from a limestone aquifer, along with an adjacent duckweed-covered sinkhole where divers can descend into an overhanging cavern that – for those with the proper training and equipment, leads into an extensive cave system. This weekend, however, my truck wasn’t loaded with doubles and DPVs, and instead carried standard open water gear, aluminum 80s and my 13-year-old son Nash.
Nash grew up with mask and fins, earned his Jr Open Water Card soon after his 10th birthday, and has since logged quite a few dives in Florida, Bahamian and Caribbean waters. Today, we’d expand his dive log with a drysuit experience, courtesy of DUI and their DOG Rally program. Each year, the DOGs – as in DUI Owners Group – participate in a nation-wide road trip that allows thousands of divers to experience drysuit diving for the first time.
With more than a decade of experience and 100-plus events under their belts, the DOG rally staff and numerous volunteers who participate in these events have created a well-oiled events machine that – in the case of Manatee – gave them exclusive access to the park’s dive sites for the weekend, along with a premier location for gear tents and changing stations. We parked, lugged tanks and BCs to the basin steps, did a bit of preliminary paperwork and waver signing, and were soon being ushered through a series of stations where we were measured then fitted with various suit components.
DUI inventories a wide variety of suit sizes and styles in their demo fleet, and the fitting process is significantly simplified by the use of their ZipSeals technology; once you have properly sized neck and wrist seals, they can be fitted to any demo suit on the rack. (This same system is really handy when it comes time to replace a seal on a personal suit – or to change to dry gloves).
The DOG staff led Nash through the kitting up process, and in fairly short order, he was clad in trilaminate and ready for the water. Sort of. Sometimes, I’m not the best parent, as I tend to take a sink-or-swim approach to certain aspects of mentoring. I could have spent a lot of time lecturing on the finer points and baby-stepping Nash into the shallow end; but given the controlled conditions, and the presence of an assisting instructor in the spring basin, I figured it would be best to provide some basic understanding, then get him some actual bottom time in the suit.
The success of this approach depends on who’s telling the story. I thought he did amazingly well for being a first timer with minimal coaching. He says less so. But my son is a bit of a perfectionist, especially when it comes to his water skills.
He had some initial struggles with body position, but within a few minutes went from feet-up to head-up and then into an angled arch that allowed him to hover close to the bottom without silting. Not that it mattered all that much, as the basin was repeatedly churned by a steady stream of first-timers who were happily floundering about, then eventually mastering the basics of drysuit buoyancy.The DOGs brought grills and picnic goodies, and after a burger and surface interval, we finished up with a deeper dive into the adjacent sinkhole known as Catfish Hotel, where we descended to the shadowy cavern mouth, and were treated to a lighted view of the tunnel entrance as two cave divers emerged from an upstream exploration.
By the time we finished and returned the demo suits, the DOG crew was repositioning tables for an evening BBQ dinner, and everyone was milling and sharing war stories in the fashion of divers everywhere. I chatted with some folks who drove down from Georgia for the event, then struck up a conversation with Steve Forman of Scuba Etc. in Winter Haven, Florida, who is a firm believer in the gospel of drysuit.
“It’s a misconception that drysuits are only for ice or extreme cold water,” he says. “I tell customers that the suit keeps you dry, but it’s the insulation that keeps you warm. You can tailor your undergarments to the mission.” In addition to cavers, he’s seeing a growing number of ocean divers embracing drysuits to extend their diving season. Another big selling point of drysuits, he says, is longevity. Even well cared for wetsuits rarely last more than a few seasons, but it’s not uncommon to get 10 or 20 years out of a quality drysuit with only minor maintenance, and most types of damage can usually be repaired cost-effectively.
The evening ended with a well-stocked buffet line and an inspirational slide program that left me wanting to sign up for the DOG’s next trip to Antarctica…. maybe. If nothing else, the day provided my son with a great opportunity to expand his diving horizons, and gave me a chance to reconnect with a few old friends and make some new ones. Driving home, I didn’t even mind that we’d missed the big game up in Tallahassee.