I met up with the Suunto test dive team out front of their dive trailer parked in the loading dock of the factory. It is the dive trailer every tech diver dreams of. A multi-gas compressor, tanks of all shape and size stored neatly; reels, spools and other gadgets hanging from hooks. I glance down and see 6 tanks with my name on them and I begin to get excited for the adventure that awaits. I analyze my tanks, pick up some weight and off we go to Ojamo….
Ojamo mine is Finland’s diving pride and joy and you can tell just from talking to the Suunto folks. They love their wreck diving but when it comes to technical cave diving, Ojamo is all they’ve got. It is an old limestone mine that is located in Lohja, approximately 60km outside of Helsinki where we were staying. It now serves as a technical diver’s playground with its multiple levels ranging from 38 meters (125 feet) to 200 meters (650 feet) and year round crystal clear 4°C (39 °F) fresh water. During the summer months it also serves as a convenient open water training facility.
The Suunto team goes to great lengths to carry out extensive testing of all new gear. They run all the computers through the standard slew of in-house test and then take them out and give them the “real test”. They dive year round, which includes chiseling through thick ice to access the extensive passageways below. My two dive buddies each had approximately 6 computers lined up their forearms that they were testing out that day.
I arrive and after a quick site briefing I quietly assemble my gear. When entering as the “new gal”, I am always super cautious about my every action so as to display some sort of confidence in my fellow divers that I actually know what I’m doing. After all of my tanks and gear was assembled, I begin to put on my drysuit. A process that took me three tries though thankfully nobody noticed. Put suit on – dang, I forgot my long underwear – suit off, long underwear on – suit on again – dang, I forgot my 3rd pair of socks – suit off, socks on – suit on, phew, are we done yet??
With my drysuit finally on, we walk over to the classroom where I get a detailed dive briefing. Visibility, notable sites, gas switches, time at depth, buddy arrangement, etc. I am not used to somebody providing me with a dive plan so I was sure to ask lots of questions until I was comfortable with the plan. After the briefing, I slowly geared up, checked my gear over again to make sure everything was working and in its place.
Now, here comes what might be my biggest diving challenge in Finland…and no, it wasn’t clipping off the 3rd stage bottle while wearing dry gloves, though that came in a very close second…it was the dive ladder. I am sure you are thinking, it’s a ladder, how can that be challenging? Well, let me tell you … I got tripped up on their strange staggered rung ladders more times than I could count. So with my dual 12L cylinders on my back, I began to climb down into the lake. However, for the past 27 years of my life, when one foot becomes level with the other foot, I shift my weight…oh but not when it’s a staggered rung ladder my friend, that will cause you to almost swing off the ladder and look like a fool in front of your dive buddies…don’t ask me how I know this, it certainly didn’t happen to me!
Finally, in the water and special thanks to my wonderful friend who is a very skilled dive master, I managed to clip off my three stage cylinders. My buddy asked, “do you have back-up lights?” “yup, of course, somewhere hiding under all these tanks!” I was very impressed by how cautious, patient and helpful the Suunto test divers were with me. I never once felt rushed or pressured, which made for a very enjoyable cave diving experience. As I dropped below the surface, all the stress and anxiety melted away. The weightless environment kicks in and I can make sense of all of the gear hanging off of me.
Breathing off of our ‘travel gas’, a mixture of 31% oxygen, 23% helium (31/23) we drop two of our deco bottles along the way, one at 20 feet (6 meters), another around 65 feet (20 meters) and continue into the cave. The cave entrance is a bit unusual compared to the natural caves that I am used to. A small table with a vice mounted on it greets us just outside the entrance. One side of the entrance way is gated shut and you have to swim over a barrier intended to keep open water divers out. It is about an 8-10 minute swim through the cave entrance before entering the true mine shaft. We switch to our back gas (17/43) and slowly descend down the rails that once carried the limestone out from the depths of the mine to the surface. This was by far my favorite part of the dive. It was like flying down one of those rail systems that bring you up small mountains as part of tourist attractions. We descended down to 190 feet to one of the deeper levels of the mine system. There, we explored for approximately 10 minutes before beginning the slow climb back up the rail tracks to the surface. The dive absolutely flew by…30 minutes of “bottom time” and then the hour of decompression.
On the way out of the cave I saw a bunch of stuff I had missed on the way in. A disco ball strategically placed so that it catches your light beam and spreads rays of light all over the cave. Then there was the slightly sadistic mannequin placed on the gate near the entrance of the cave that upon first glance makes your heart skip a beat. I distinctly remember when I went from chilly to very cold and had to fight the urge to shiver. It was right around 40 minutes when I was about to switch from my travel gas to my first designated deco gas at 60 feet. I had a 2 minute deep stop staring at a rock that felt like it lasted 10 minutes.
Once we were clearly in open water and there was stuff to see (sort of, visibility was <5 feet) I was able to forget about the cold. Ojamo has some props staged in the open water for training students including a submarine that you can pop your head up into the air trapped underneath (and the awesome Suunto computer display located inside). Dive bells always provide a good bit of entertainment and are particularly fun to experience mid-dive. The rest of the deco seemed to fly by relatively quickly…never thought I would say that.
Once we finally made it our final 20 foot stop, one of my buddies gave me the ‘follow me’ signal. We embarked on a relatively boring but exceptionally useful out and back course at 20 feet. They have installed lines at a few decompression depths for divers to swim out and back to keep the blood flowing and take your mind off of the decompression time remaining. Once we returned to our 20 foot stop below the dock I had a mere 3-4 minutes remaining on my D9tx computer that I was demoing before slowly surfacing.
Shockingly my hands managed to stay un-numb thanks to dry gloves and argon gas (drysuit inflation). My toes unfortunately did not manage as well and despite the 3 layers of wool socks were white and tingly after the 94 minute dive. The biggest shocker for me was that my lips went completely numb which made it interesting trying to swap out regulators. Also, it left me with some pretty killer ‘Angelina Jolie’ plump limps for the next few hours.
It was an awesome dive yet quite challenging managing a new system, cold water, dry gloves, 3 deco bottles and new buddies that speak a foreign language. My buddies reassured me that I did an excellent job and that I could tag along anytime, phew (they must have missed the ladder incident)! The entire Suunto test team was wonderful and made for an amazing Finnish diving experience. Now, I just can’t wait to go back again to do some more exploring!!