Local Dive Outpost creates a home for cave divers
If being underwater in a pitch-black cave is outside your comfort zone, there’s a good chance you aren’t SVEC member Cathy Lesh. The owner of Dive Outpost in Suwannee County has been a cave diver for 30 years, and while some people find the activity intimidating, she hasn’t found an experience that compares.
“You’re out of your element at first, but after a while that changes and you’re completely in your element,” she says. “There’s no gravity, so it feels like going diving in your easy chair. You’re just so comfortable in this spot, and it’s lovely.”
That comfort comes with decades of experience. Lesh began diving when she met her future husband, an open water diving instructor, in Chicago. Because she worked in the travel industry, the two explored the world and went diving in places like the Great Lakes and the Pacific Ocean.
It took 10 years of open water diving experience before Lesh felt comfortable trying cave diving. She and her husband traveled often to Peacock Springs State Park on cave diving trips, and they became regulars at the Dive Outpost when it opened in the early 1980s. When they had the opportunity to buy the business in 1995, they jumped at the chance.
“We had a lot of trepidation about changing career paths,” Lesh says. “You go from everything being set and knowing your money is coming in to basically jumping off a cliff. We made a bid and looked at each other like, ‘What did we just do?’”
Since her husband passed away in 2000, Lesh has run Dive Outpost herself, building it into a one-stop shop for her fellow diving enthusiasts. Visitors to the area can stay at on-site accommodations, purchase new equipment at the dive shop or learn more about cave diving from local instructors.
After accumulating firsthand diving experience, taking advantage of training like that offered at the Dive Outpost is the most important step an aspiring cave diver can take to avoid unnecessary risks.
“You can get into giant rooms that are so big you can’t even light up the sides,” Lesh says. “The water is unbelievably clear. It’s as close to flying as one can get. Some caves have a lot of current flowing out, so you can pull your way into it, and you don’t swim out. You just fly out on the current. It’s a marvelous experience.”
Now in her 24th year running Dive Outpost, Lesh tends to prefer mermaid diving, which is done in open water with minimal equipment. She leaves the cave diving to her customers, but she is as dedicated as ever to building a welcoming environment for them.
“My dog, Bandit, is one of the most important employees,” Lesh says. “I make this my home, and then I bring visitors into my home. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that from people: ‘I feel like I’m coming home.’”
Lesh also knows the hazards involved with cave diving and carries a concern for her visitors with her whenever they go out.
“There’s a level of stress every day worrying about the people going off,” Lesh says. “I find out where they’re going and what time they’re due back. That’s in the back of my mind all the time because cave diving isn’t a walk in the park. It can be a dangerous sport.”
When Lesh and her husband bought Dive Outpost almost 25 years ago, their goal was to re-create the experience they had traveling to Suwannee County. Along with a group of friends, they would pile into a van and camp near their dive site, cooking meals and enjoying good company by the campfire.
“That’s what I came here to create. The whole premise for building this place was to make it somewhere I would go,” Lesh says. “There’s so little you really need to make people comfortable: a nice bed, a cool room, clean sheets. Just a nice place, friendly faces and a cheesy dog.”