By John Tapley
Beyond recreational diving is the world of technical: a discipline that demands the utmost skill, dedication, and precision. Going into deeper depths establishes a degree of confidence: expanding horizons in pursuit of greater accomplishments. Cave diving, with its own set of rules and requirements, requires this confidence in spades, and in turn, opens up a unique world between water and earth: places few have even seen. Delving into the blue, scuba diving television program ScubaNation, is sharing the challenges and adrenaline of cave diving in Suwannee County, Florida: an area lauded as one of the greatest cave diving destinations in the entire world.
Recognized as the only television show devoted to the sport of scuba diving, ScubaNation is celebrating its 7thyear on air: showcasing recreational diving pursuits the world over; featuring diving hot spots from the Northeastern United States to Florida, and into the Caribbean. Hosted by avid adventurers Billy “Billy C.” Catoggio and Mike “Bitchin’ Mitch” Horne, the Emmy Award-winning show airs on Fox Sports Sun Network and NBC Sports Boston, and entertains and educates 11.4 million households per week.
For most of its time, the exciting diving program has focused squarely on recreational interests but brushed with technical elements in spring of 2016 through an episode entitled “Cave Country”. In north central Florida, the co-hosts earned their IANTD Cave Certification with instructor Mark Fowler. The response, from both viewers and ScubaNation members, was tremendous.
“My frame of mind was to be comfortable not being comfortable. For me it was, ‘let’s think outside the box and do it’. I loved it,” explains Billy C. “We went through the Intro to Cave Diving course, and I had a great instructor in Mark Fowler. We trained in finding the line during a blackout; sharing breathing out of a cave; going back 1500 feet into the cave.”
With a new world open to them, ScubaNation eagerly contacted Richard Black, owner of Florida Dive Connection (FDC) and a key organizer of the Cave Country experience, to lay the groundwork for a more extensive episode on cave diving: their sights locked to Suwanee County’s acclaimed underwater cave systems; their date set to the first week of 2018; their host, Dive Outpost outside Peacock Springs. Complications arose quickly, however, as much of Florida was beset by a powerful blizzard – the coldest on record since 1989 – which inhibited the shooting.
“It was beyond the pale. One morning it was snowing in Tallahassee. It was frigid; every morning was in the 20s,” Billy C. laughs. “There was frost all over the trees, and branches breaking all around us. What the hell were we doing there? One day the park was closed so we just sat on our hands and looked at each other! It became comical, but we rolled with the punches.”
Despite these dismal circumstances, the crew persevered against the elements, with Billy C. and special guest star, Floridian diver Amber Yates successfully completing the IANTD Intro to Cave Class by Fowler. Beyond his thirst for adventure and thrills, Billy C. has developed an intense appreciation for technical diving and enjoys the company of technical divers who are as devoted to their gear as the journey itself. Additionally, he is excited to open new avenues through more challenging training.
“Technical and cave divers are a small group of gearheads: they love gear, tricking it out, crunching the numbers, and the challenge – there’s an appeal to it like skydiving. It’s going to find something new: maybe you’ll find a branch off a cave… it’s exciting stuff and you have to be good. The things you learn through cave diving training translate to all aspects of a diving career. Who wouldn’t be open to continuing their education?”
Handling logistics for such an endeavor is no small feat and supporting ScubaNation’s dedication to highlighting Suwannee County’s caves were several scuba organizations. Underwater Light Dude, Deep Six Expedition Dive Gear, Dive Rite, and Tropical Seas Reef Safe contributed to the training and media project by donating valuable equipment. FDC coordinated these groups while the Suwannee County Tourist Development Center (SCTDC) provided funding. By sharing the country’s cave diving opportunities with a wider audience, FDC and SCTDC hope to generate even more interest in the world-renowned location.
“It’s almost like the epicenter of cave diving,” says Billy C. “We interviewed people from Europe, Thailand, Canada… from all over the world. It’s interesting to see why they cave dive and what drew them to Suwannee County – we started calling it the center of the universe!”
All of these efforts made by ScubaNation and the support of local Floridians and dive organizations will come to fruition this summer when the episode (tentatively called “Center of the Universe”) is slated to be released. The production company will return to Peacock Springs in May for finishing touches: showcasing the area in its usual warm environment complete with sunbathers and temperate waters.
Looking ever forward, the ScubaNation crew is excited to share not only the thrills of Suwannee County cave diving, but a greater appreciation for the world aquatic. For them, illustrating the dreams of underwater environments – drawing from a wellspring of inspiration and drive – simply isn’t enough: they yearn for their audience to live in it and for it.
“We’re always trying to attract that new diver and make it accessible,” says Billy C. “We want to make sure diving thrives; and once you get people diving, they [become] new ambassadors for the ocean. If there’s someone on the fence, get them on the water! It’s a sport that opens up so many ideas and great moments in your life. The ocean is powerful – and it’s all about living that dream.”
For more information on ScubaNation, including videos of past episodes, visit www.scubanation.comhttp://www.scubanation.com More details on Florida Dive Connection can be found at www.floridadiveconnection.com.