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BEAUTY AND DANGER

Sweating beneath the weight of 80 pounds of dive gear, covered from head to toe in a thick rubber suit, I fought to keep mosquitoes off the few inches of exposed flesh.

"I've got to get in the water," I yelled. "These bugs are eating me alive."

Al Pertner, oblivious to the swarm around his head, just smiled and re-checked his equipment.

"Relax," he said. "Cave diving is something you don't want to rush."

Pertner pointed to a sign near the entrance to the springs.

Swim and dive at your own risk. Since 1960, over 45 divers have died in these springs.

"That sign is out of date," he said. "The number is much higher."

The dead had one thing in common: They didn't take what they were doing seriously.

"Cave diving is like driving in the Indy 500," Pertner said. "Coming around that last turn, if you lose focus for just a second, you won't be around for another lap."

Pertner, a St. Petersburg cave-diving instructor who now spends most of his time exploring the water-filled catacombs of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, has an almost Zen-like approach to his sport. He's introspective, intuitive and in no hurry to get to the bottom of the 60-foot-deep cave system.

"It will still be there a half-hour from now," he said. "But you may not be if you forget something."

Novice cave divers (including this writer) often are impatient and overeager to explore areas that are off limits to the rest of the diving public.

Experienced cave divers call it the "Star Trek syndrome," that desire to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Most open-water divers have heard the tales of gin-clear water and massive caverns with white limestone walls, rooms large enough to hold a football stadium and passageways (caves) wide enough to accommodate two tractor-trailers side by side, stretching for miles and miles through the Florida aquifer.

Who wouldn't want to drop down and take a look?

"Tighten that buckle," Pertner said, reeling me back to reality. "Cave diving is all about streamlining. You want as little resistance as possible."

Cave divers must carry nearly twice the amount of equipment as normal divers. There are two tanks, safety lines, lights, computers, bottom timers _ backup systems for backup systems. In an underwater cave, you can't count on anybody but yourself.

The purpose of this afternoon's dive was to practice running and retrieving safety lines, a cave diver's link to the world of the living.

"Ready?" Pertner asked. I nodded, "Yes."

The cool, 72-degree water shocks your system as it floods the wetsuit. It's Mother Nature's way of saying, "Wake up! This isn't your normal environment."

Dropping down 50 feet to the entrance of the cave, Pertner motioned to tie the safety line off to a rocky outcropping, then proceed down a narrow corridor.

He had warned me to keep the line tight and tie off to stationary objects as often as possible, because slack line has a way of drifting in the current. A drifting line can wind up in the most awkward spots and lead divers to places they have no business going.

The powerful electric lights illuminated the pale limestone walls and made the tunnel, which once looked dark and menacing, warm and inviting. It was easy to lose track of time and space, and just kick deeper and deeper into a cave.

We moved along, past side tunnels and around corners. There was a tug on my fin. Pertner motioned that it was time to go. We turned and followed the line back toward the cave opening. But halfway there, something went wrong. The passageway ahead was too narrow to pass. The tunnel off to the right looked correct, but the line led to the left.

Remembering my training, I trusted the line and followed until I become wedged in between the ceiling and floor. For a split second I panicked. Fear, my dragon, reared its ugly head. Then I caught myself and remembered the advice of my instructor, the cave-diving mystic.

I stopped, withdrew into myself, and calmed down. Only seconds had passed, but it seemed like hours. Slowly, I backed out of the tight spot and decided to trust my intuition. With the line still clutched in my hand, I kicked up and discovered the problem. The current had caught the loose line and hung it up between two rocks. I reeled in the slack and continued on, thankful my first mistake wasn't my last.

Back on the surface, Pertner assessed the training dive. "Not bad," he said. "Just remember: Focus."

Driving home late the next day, I wondered why people would willingly participate in such a risky sport. Then I thought about those few seconds deep in the cave when life and death hung in the balance.

Seldom in our daily lives do we have the opportunity to face our mortality, to conquer our fear, to risk it all and survive. You can't help but feel truly alive.

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