The Ozark Cave Diving Alliance was officially formed in early 1998 as the result of many things. It seemed as though exploratory efforts in the Ozark region began to taper off during the early to mid 1990’s. This appeared to be the result of one or more obstacles at the time including;
Water temperature – With water temperatures averaging in the low 50’sF, longer bottom times and the resultant decompression times became increasingly difficult to manage safely.
Depth – The depths in many of the sites being explored was significant. With commonly explored depths in the 150ffw range to start, then dropping to the low 200ffw, and even 300ffw ranges, progress was slow.
Equipment – Various equipment ideas and configurations were prevalent and it was not uncommon to encounter teams with a plethora of different equipment trials, types, configurations, gas mixtures, etc. Although not considered at the time, lack of team continuity with respect to standards and equipment provided a not yet recognized adversary.
Breathing Gas – In the more remote portions of the state, getting quality breathing gas was very difficult, if not impossible. The more reputable gas stations were hours away and fills consisted of mainly Air. Air was still the gas of choice at the time, too.
Decompression – Nearly all exploration dives, up to this point, had been conducted utilizing Air and popular Air decompression tables and/or computers. Because of this, decompression times were excruciatingly lengthy.
Propulsion – Considering all of the above factors, swimming explorers were nearing their penetration limits. Underwater propulsion vehicles were rare and consisted of two main types; tow behind and ride on. With the commercially available tow behind vehicles of the time, divers could maintain a lower diving profile, however, these vehicles did not offer the run time or depth capability necessary for continued exploration. Ride on scooters seemed to cover depth and run time, but at the expense of maneuverability, high profile, and more of a “plowing” effect. Both types were uncommon for exploration in the Ozarks and dive vehicles in general were often considered dangerous.
Conditions – Missouri cave systems offer limited visibility, dark conduit, and flow issues. In addition, the window for optimal exploration is limited to but a few months in the late summer and fall each year.
In 1995, A few of the more regular cave divers in the area were able to identify the aforementioned obstacles (and more) and began to research ways to address them. First, we decided to look around the country, and the world, gathering information from individual explorers and groups who safely conducted the types of exposures that would be required in the Midwest. We needed a proven track record as there was certainly no reason to “re-invent the wheel.” It soon became obvious the Woodville Karst Plain Project www.wkpp.org could provide the information needed. This team, at the time, was safely conducting open circuit cave penetrations near 10,400′ at an average of 285ffw. This was almost beyond comprehension and was very exciting. Regular correspondence with WKPP Director George Irvine and other WKPP divers commenced and new procedures were implemented. The changes made were profound to say the least.
In 1996, a small number of divers (later to create the OCDA) began exploring Maramec Spring in St. James, Missouri. Under exclusive permit, work continued at Maramec Spring and divers soon began exploration and clean up efforts at Roubidoux Spring in Waynesville, Missouri.
In 1997, as general exploration methods were improved, the next phase responsible for the success of continued exploration would hinge upon utilizing a larger pool of members. Team member selection was (and is) a long and delicate process. Finding the attributes necessary for dedicated and focused cave divers is not an easy undertaking. Even so, membership increased to roughly 10 and exploration progressed. Later the same year, two members of the OCDA received the first Gavin Scooters used in the central United States, outside the WKPP. These underwater dive vehicles, designed by U.S. Naval Engineer Bill Gavin, were quickly put to work and, under the continued guidance of George Irvine, allowed greater range.
As progress was made at both Maramec and Roubidoux springs, The James Foundation (Maramec Spring) became fascinated with the information the Team was providing (video, maps, photographs, and general communication) and, to our pleasant surprise, the amount of public and private interest was very high, also.
In January 1998, the Ozark Cave Diving Alliance was officially formed and focused in providing continued education to the public, landowner, and scientific community with respect to area underwater cave systems. In addition, the newly formed Team was able to minimize or altogether overcome the previously limiting obstacles. For example;
Using the proper thermal protection (shell type drysuits with compression resistant Type B Thinsulate and Argon gas suit inflation), we have been able to minimize thermal stresses associated with extended exposures. Recently, utilizing information obtained from WKPP Europe (Reinhard Buchally and Michael Waldbrenner), the OCDA began using the above exposure suits complimented with electric heating. We also use decompression habitats for even longer exposures (where conditions allow).
Members of the OCDA do not use Air as a breathing gas at all anymore. All dives are conducted utilizing Nitrox (elevated Oxygen / reduced Nitrogen), Trimix (Helium, Oxygen, Nitrogen), and/or Heliox (Helium / Oxygen) with the majority of dives incorporating the later two. Because of this, decompression times may be accelerated with improved efficiency realized. All profiles are generated via decompression software long before the dives begin and Teams operate under standard mix guidelines to maximize safety and simplify diving operations at all locations. Proper gas selection and planning combined with the latest decompression techniques allow the OCDA to conduct more lengthy exposures while minimizing risk.
Although optimizing diving gas via Helium use has greatly increased the safety of current exploration, acquisition of breathing supplies and equipment can be expensive and, in some cases, difficult to obtain. Over the past few years, nearly all members of the OCDA have and maintain their own fill stations, with at least one being centrally located for more convenient access during multi-day projects. In short, Helium based gas mixtures have made exploration more comfortable and safer. Now, deeper dives, previously rendering explorers virtually helpless, are made with a high degree of mental clarity and comfort.
All Team equipment is standard and the same for each and every diver. Selection, configuration, and use of equipment for this Team has been the result of over 20 years of continued refinement, with the greatest refinements being accomplished in the last 10. Standard, proven equipment allows every diver to be intimately familiar with his/her partners gear thereby maximizing safety and minimizing confusion in an already gear intensive activity.
All long range diving is conducted using the previously mentioned Gavin Scooter. These vehicles, refined by George Irvine, allow the Team to penetrate cave systems further and more easily than ever before. In addition, the use of Gavin Scooters helps divers transit shorter distances at over four times the speed of a swimming diver and with very little physical effort. This greatly improves the overall efficiency of diving operations and data collection. These reliable, robust, and modular machines have revolutionized exploration worldwide.
As of 2007, exploration efforts continue and the OCDA has now added RB80 rebreathers to the equipment line up along with several new team members. The non-profit team is currently exploring many large springs as well as various sumps in a multi-state area. At each site the OCDA has also initiated methods of documenting various cave creatures within these systems and maintaining detailed logs for future scientific use.
With increasing demands for underwater cave related education, the Ozark Cave Diving Alliance will continue research and exploration well into the 21st Century.
Jason Weisacosky, Founder
Ozark Cave Diving Alliance