As I pen these words, a beloved figure in the diving business is preparing her departure. Cathy Lesh is retiring from her longstanding ownership of the Dive Outpost of Live Oak, Florida, to the next generation. She leaves behind a tremendous legacy of sincere love and passion for one of the most technically challenging activities in the world today: cave diving. Cathy and her husband purchased Dive Outpost 24 years ago, and when her husband passed away in 2000, she was determined to continue what they both started.
Her legacy is highlighted by a sign that hangs above the doorway of this world-renowned cave diving nirvana: “Our attitude is our gratitude!”
Anyone who has stepped through the doors of the Dive Outpost knows firsthand the special aura that hangs in the air. You can breathe in the peacefulness and sense the history. A large collection of pictures, stickers, business cards and personal notes hangs on the wall near a quaint cash register on a decades-old handmade wooden counter. They hardly begin to tell the story of how this “home away from home” has inspired so many men and women from around the world to explore the great dark depths of Florida’s springs, caverns and water filled caves.
Cathy treats every visitor like family. She provides a home, complete with the best homemade chocolate chip cookies this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Known as “deco” cookies, these delicious chocolate morsels are sought out after every dive. Dive Outpost regulars like Mike and Tracy from Vermont may gain several pounds just by eating deco cookies during their stay at the Dive Outpost. Mike and Tracy are among the many annual pilgrims to North Florida. In this region, they soak up the Florida sunshine, breathe the pine-scented fresh air, enjoy the Spanish moss and spend hours traversing some of the best fresh water springs on planet earth. Dive Outpost is strategically located near Peacock Springs, which boasts over 35,000 feet of explorable interconnected passages.
Alain and Didi, like many cave divers from around the world, pin their Canadian hometown on a large world map. The map hangs next to a sturdy old wooden shelf of diving cylinders full of nitrox and various mixes of oxygen. These cylinders help divers shorten their mandated decompression times after a long dive. Alain and Didi spend several months during the harsh Canadians winters at the Dive Outpost living in their camper trailer parked next to “The Campfire.”
On any given night, you might find cave diving legends such as Paul Heirnerth regaling fellow divers around the crackling fire with stories from the depths of Wakulla. Heirnerth can tell stories of discovering mastodon bones while diving, or he can explain the finer aspects of choosing a good dry suit. Heirnerth has been teaching cave diving enthusiasts ever since the sport came into existence back in the 1970s.
Many cave diving instructors use the Dive Outpost as their base of operations for teaching the rigorous standards and safety protocols required for a cave diving certification. Tree trunks and building supports are often wrapped and connected with spools of “cave line” as students practice their skills of “running a reel”. This vital skill ensures a continuous safety line is available to exit the cave in the event of a “silt out,” when visibility in the cave may be reduced to zero.
Another thing that makes Dive Outpost feel like home for cave divers is the collection of quaint cottages meticulously maintained and kept clean over the years by only Cathy herself. Divers often need to reserve “their spot” months in advance, especially during the busy seasons. But don’t bother trying to log in to a reservation system online. Cathy records everything with a pencil on a large paper calendar.
Maintaining the two hefty Bauer air compressors named Blue and Red can be a daunting task even for the most seasoned professional dive operator. Cathy ensures these compressors are maintained flawlessly to provide the safest breathing gas possible to her customers, many of whom she considers family. This trust relationship goes much deeper than one might imagine, as she also takes on the daily responsibility of filling dozens of dive tanks with air and nitrox, a special mixture of gas that allows divers to stay underwater longer.
Cathy also meticulously keeps track of everybody’s dive plans, like a mother hen caring for her chicks. Cathy knows the hazards involved with cave diving and has a deep concern for her divers whenever they go out. Worrying about the safety of her guests as they dive is part of Cathy’s daily routine. She finds out where they are going and what time they are due back. It can be a dangerous sport, and, unfortunately, more than one of her guests have lost their lives while diving. A year before Cathy and her husband bought the shop, well known pioneer of cave diving Sheck Exely died at age 45 while trying to set a depth record by diving the world’s deepest sinkhole, Mexico’s 1,080-foot deep Zacatón, a freshwater cenote.
In the evenings, if you wander through the back of the shop, your nostrils will be filled with the aroma of delicious home cooking as guests prepare their own meals after a long day of diving. Personal glasses of wine dot the dining table where divers of all ages and backgrounds discuss their dives, life and the mysteries of the universe. The discussion is often in languages like French or Russian, depending on the native tongue of the many international cave explorers who pay homage to the local springs.
Of course, you can’t talk about Dive Outpost without mentioning the adorable, lovable resident canine, Bandit. This charming, heartwarming golden retriever is loved by all and will remain a loyal member of the Dive Outpost staff long after Cathy’s departure.
Cathy has announced that her time has come to leave Dive Outpost, but that doesn’t mean the experience she created for her guests must end. Adam Wallace will follow in Cathy’s footsteps as the new owner of Dive Outpost. He and his partner Kate are both passionate, experienced cave divers who have a vision for continuing Cathy’s legacy. Frequent guest Andy Higgie plans to remain a regular visitor. Andy flies across the pond from England to survey and map the local springs. Andy has logged over 1400 cave dives in nearly 100 unique systems and recently has completed almost 40,000 feet of survey in Florida’s spring caves. Dive Outpost is Andy’s home away from home and will remain so when Cathy turns over control to Adam.
So much more could be said about the legacy of Cathy Lesh and the impact she has made on the cave diving community. Ashley from Lutz, Florida, wraps it up very nicely: “I would say that Dive Outpost has captured a piece of my heart because Cathy’s kindness, hospitality, and warmth is felt by everyone who goes there and that makes for a welcoming environment that feels like a second home.”
Article submitted by DJ Hall