Total Pageviews

Tuesday, March 01, 2016


                       The Connie LoRe Story
                                By Steve Penn Gerrard

     We were sitting at a table at Pizza Leo’s Pizzeria located in the small Mayan village of Chemuyil directly in the heart of the Rivieria Maya of Mexico a few years ago.  It was Connie, her husband Charlie, Pablo Diaz, his wife Zyanya Nava and me.  It was always a great place to meet, exchange news about our friends and family, talk about issues within the local cave diving community and, basically, enjoy an evening of socializing together. That is how Connie represents herself with fun and the enjoyment of life in always a positive manner.

     We have known each other since her first trip to the Riviera Maya in 1991.  She participated in a cave diving group trip lead by the renowned Paul Heinerth.  Staying at Villas DeRosa located at Aventuras Akumal, Paul introduced Connie to the incredible cenotes that permeated the entire area.  That was all it took and she immediately fell in love with the cenotes, the local people and the overall ambiance of this incredible region.

     Connie learned to scuba dive from Open Water Instructor Rick Bertram of Spring Hill, Florida in 1985.  She would have not dreamed of getting into the water if it were not for him.  She had signed up herself, Charlie, her 14 year old son Travis along with another 14 year old friend of his.  She announced to the dive store that she did not really want to dive, but learn enough knowledge and education so that her son and other teenagers would not pull any shenanigans over her.

     Near the completion of the scuba course she asked Rick in a jokingly manner if she could take another written test instead of participating in her open water check out dives. Her first open water dives were in Key Largo diving at the famous John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.  It is the first undersea park in the United States that encompasses approximately 70 nautical square miles.

     On their first dive Charlie and the boys performed their giant stride entries from the dive boat and descended slowly down to the beautiful reef.  Connie did her giant stride entry and immediately began to hyperventilate.  At the surface, Rick immediately held her hand and slowly coaxed her calming her nerves.    Before she knew it, she was swimming on top of the reef and the hook was set.

     "If not for Connie, I would never have gone to Mexico so many times to cave dive nor for so many years (28 trips). She has made each trip fun, safe, interesting and easy. As a cave diver, she is my idol - I learned so much from her following around behind her on the dives when she was able to join us. As a woman, she is an inspiration - how she handled her bout with cancer was a lesson in humility. As a trip organizer she is without parallel - she made sure we got everything we needed for our dives, our meals and our accommodations without fail, often in the face of trying circumstances - hey, it's Mexico!  She made sure we always had new dives to check out and that we got the best dives available - it never got boring.  She even organized parties to finish our week with a fun time. Her energy and comradeship is always appreciated - can't wait for my next trip!"  Sandra Jorgensen

     After that experience Charlie decided that scuba diving was not for him, but for Connie and Travis an entire Pandora’s Box had been opened.  They began taking many open water specialty courses learning more and gaining experience and, most important, confidence.   

     Travis got into spearfishing.  With their family boat with Charlie as Captain, together they did many scuba dives in the Gulf of Mexico west of Hudson, Florida.  Connie was not really interested in spearfishing and was content observing her son shoot fish.  Later into that summer season of 1985, Travis handed her his spear gun and motions for her to shoot a fish.  She did and another “hook” was set with her launch into her scuba diving career.  She loved spearfishing and the hunt!

     As a cave diving instructor, Mexico has always offered an opportunity to see unlimited beautiful underwater caves that do not exist in our home state of Florida. I had the pleasure of meeting Connie through Ginnie Springs and was made aware of her guided trips to Mexico through Depth Perception Dive Center in Tampa. After going on one of Connie's guided trips with them I was extremely impressed with her attention to detail to make sure the groups ENJOYED their Mexico experience. Having lead groups of divers all over the world I know how difficult that can be so I was very impressed.  I had the opportunity to contract with other guides in the area but chose to bring my groups with Connie because of the professionalism and attention to detail she provides. These trips are also my vacation, as I'm not teaching, so I wanted to relax and enjoy my trip as well. Staying at the VDR has always had its challenges since I first went there in 1995 and Connie has handled the drama with great skill and I have never had a complaint about the food, accommodations, or the diving.  The transportation is always humorous! Please let your readers know that for almost twenty years I have had the privilege of associating my name with her trips and would not hesitate to recommend her to any diver.”  Bert Wilcher

     Travis had become trained and certified as a cave diver by Paul Heinerth.   Connie followed suit but chose to stay at the “Intro to Cave” level for more than a year.  Each time when Travis and Connie would go cave diving, he dived at her level mentoring her and being good buddy.  That is what “good sons” do.

     One day cave diving in North Florida, after a dive, they stopped at a dive store to get her single tank refilled.  While her scuba tank was being filled, the person who was filling the tank and was a cave diving Instructor made a snide remark after looking at her Intro to Cave level card, “Nobody just stays at Intro level”!  She later informed Travis of the comment.  Travis replied that the guy was a jerk and that she should do what she felt comfortable with.

     I met Connie at Ginnie Springs in the early nineties during one of my cave dive training trips to Florida. Always smiling, very friendly and helpful!! Later met her husband Charlie and son Travis, nice people!  Years later she guided our group on two of my trips to Mexico. I had been to Mexico three different trips prior and on my fourth trip, the group I was with decided to book Connie as our guide, I remember thinking" we don't need a guide, but OK! “it turned out to be the best time”! Whatever anybody wanted she made it happen. Driving our rambunctious group to dive sites; historical sites and shopping! So much fun we booked our next trip to Mexico with her for an equally great time. Great memories!         Jeff Reeves

     That incident influenced Connie so much that when she was managing at Ginnie Springs she made it a point to tell the young staff members who got cave diving trained and certified, to “never ever” make an open water diver feel less of themselves with anyone who was a cave diver.

     “What I saw over the years was that she was amazingly efficient in the water; she barely needed to kick, while able to swim fast. She never touched the cave (that I could see). Her use of spools on those dives was perfect.  And over time, I learned that wherever she took a group, she knew the cave inside out. I doubt that she even needed a line where she would take us. That fits with the comment below about safety. And I think she's done some interesting exploration as well (as part of a team). I don't recall any of the details”.  Bill Ince.

     Connie decided it was time to get “Full Cave” trained and certified, which she did during early 1991 with Paul Heinerth as her Cave Instructor.   She and Travis started to really cave dive often together with him mentoring.  Travis would tell his Mom, “the day you think you did not learn anything on a cave dive…that is the day you should stop cave diving…every cave dive is a learning experience”.  She could hear his voice in her head saying to her on many cave dives she done when he not around to dive with her.

     Connie started taking many more advanced specialty courses such as DPV cave, the Recovery Specialist that the famous Henry Nicholson offered, Survey/Exploration, Deep Air and Wreck Diving.  She was like a sponge soaking in as much knowledge and experience that she could muster.

     While working at Ginnie Springs, Connie maintained a travel trailer home parked near the dive and country store.  This was her headquarters when not home in Hudson, Florida.  She invested into two Aqua-Zepp DPV’s and she and Travis would execute many dives into the renowned Devil’s Eye Cave System at Ginnie Springs.  It was convenient and the costs were free since she worked there.  She really knew that cave system very well. 

     “I always loved Connie’s briefings and stick maps before entering a cave in Mexico…”In theory, this is where the line will be.” :-) Her attention to detail before every dive and her clear explanation of how lines ran (or might have been changed) always made me feel comfortable about with each dive. Her genuine love of the caves and the people who live in Mexico is contagious and caused my heart to open to the beauty of the geology and the sweet spirits of the local folks. She wraps her whole heart around not only the caves and locals but around each person who travels with her.”     Simone Lipscomb
     Travis was a big influence with her cave diving skills telling her over and over to always REFERENCE your underground surroundings.  It could save your life someday.  She put it to practice as on many cave dives she would imagine the guide line not being there and see if she had “referenced” well enough to exit the cave without the line.
     As an example, one cave dive during the mid-1990’s in Mexico, she and Travis put in a spool for the dive from the permanent mainline to an offshoot line in the cave.  During the exit from the cave, Connie was in the lead position.   When they reached the jump area back to the main line, there was no spool in place.  She froze in horror and disbelief.  Travis took over the lead and they exited the cave!  That was proof to her that his words to always “reference” would always echo in her head.  They never knew who removed their spool.
      “I've been on over 20 trips with Connie since 1999. EVERY trip has been a fantastic time and I consider Connie a friend...not just a trip organizer. I've often thought of doing a Mexico cave trip in other ways, but I'll tell you why I always return to VDR and Connie.  For one, anyone that has ever done a trip knows that things at VDR and Mexico in general are not always as "well oiled" as it should be! Connie IS that oil!! She works relentlessly to make sure that EVERYTHING goes as well as possible....which is MANY times no easy task! Some of those details include sending pertinent information before the trip, making sure we get picked up at the airport, have Dos Equis available the arrival day, working A/C and clean rooms, tanks that are in hydro, bands properly spaced for back plates...not leaking, working vehicles where the tanks will not drop through the floor, proper food, making sure you have cerveza for after the last dive, keeping the group organized and on time. Also including making sure you get the proper % of O2 in the nitrox mix, sufficient tanks for each day, making makeshift parts for the a tree branch for a windshield wiper. MOST IMPORTINTLY....access to each site!! Anyone that has ever been there knows what a nightmare that can be! Especially going to places that are not often used. Dealing with land owners. (which often means cerveza, toys for the children, or negotiations) These things you take for granted are NOT a given in Mexico!

     On top of all that, no one knows the caves like Connie. She ALWAYS knew the right jumps on any "destination" dive. It was not uncommon to see her lit up like a Christmas tree with 6 or more "colored line" spools! (using all of them) I'm not sure, but I think Connie was the first to make colored diamond braded line popular. It sure is reassuring to see and hard to miss! She has access to local guides and always finds skilled and competent associates. (well, almost always. LOL) Only hiring guides that know the systems and how to get to them....and not just the main line. Dive planning is stressed. Groups are broken up. The variety of sites is always changing and many places will only let Connie take divers in. She really does take care of almost everything......I loved diving with Connie! I very much miss diving with her. Her technique was impeccable! I've been on over 100 cave dives with her... from large wide open passage, discovering new places, zero visibility low silt passage, and everything in between. I have many great memories of each trip.

     Lastly, some of the best parts of the trip were out of the water. Dinner at VDR is always a time to have a couple drinks and share stories of the day, and just about anything. Connie has stories! We often share memories of past trips and things that would happen. She makes it like old and new friends getting together for a reunion. You couldn't ask for more! Thanks Connie.... Jim Chaudoir

     Though I have shared several diving and social experiences with Connie and her family there was one event that took place that really impressed me.  On Tuesday, February 6, 2001, a friend and a guest at Villas Derosa was reported missing in a cave located two km south of Tulum.  He was cave diving with his wife during a weeklong visit. 
     The night before I shared a social hour with both of them on the rooftop of the hotel.  I had noticed that he looked tired and haggard.  He was a division manager for the major corporation IBM in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  I strongly encouraged him to hire a personal physical trainer and get himself back into good personal shape.  Little did I understand that the real problem was mental fatigue.

     Connie was at Villas DeRosa for her annual two weeks of cave diving groups.  It was typical that she would fly in a week early to relax and prepare for her guests.  At about 1:38 P.M. Tuesday afternoon, a phone call was received from my good friend Gunnar Wagner who owned and operated the Aktun Dive Center in Tulum.  The victim’s wife had arrived in their rental vehicle to his shop asking for help.  Gunnar asked me to drive down and meet him at the cenote to search for the missing cave diver.

     As I prepared the vehicle loading cave diving equipment, I asked Connie if she would help with the search. Without hesitation, she loaded her equipment too.  As we drove south on Highway 307, I coached her on what to expect.  This could be fairly quick or it could turn into a several dives searching for someone in a vast, complex area that I knew very well.  I was hoping for the quick and easy.

     When we arrived at the cenote, there was Gunnar, Robbie Schmittner and the wife of the missing person.  She was distraught, but otherwise fairly composed.  Connie later told me, “I remember the wife being present and in despair during out briefing….and I asked a medical doctor who was staying at Gunnar’s if he would take her back to Villas DeRosa.  She said, “Connie, you don’t want me here?” and I replied, I think you would be more comfortable there. My thought was I knew this would be a recovery and not a rescue, and it would be better for her to be at Villas DeRosa with friends, than here in the jungle to witness us bringing out her husband after a long time.   I just truly was concerned for her.”

     This would be the first experience for Gunnar, Robbie and Connie being involved in this type of ordeal.  For me, with the many recoveries I have performed in my past, it was another sickening incident that I had to mentally deal with.  The trick in your mind was to treat the missing person as an object and not a real human being.  Cruel as that sounds, that is the only way to deal with it.  The most important thing with this circumstance was how we handled this very emotional and sensitive state of affairs with the missing person’s wife.  

     We all gathered around my truck and I devised a simple plan.  Since we knew the missing person had swam upstream of the cave passage known as tunnel “A”, we would swim upstream and go with the flow.  Meaning we would make decisions “on the fly”.  After all the preparations and rituals of doing a safe cave dive, the four of us descended from the surface of the cenote and immediately saw the primary guideline of the missing person tied off at the cave entrance.

     We swam upstream approximately 1000 feet the main line, Robbie immediately started to flash his primary light.  He spotted the missing person on the right side of the huge cave passage about 75 feet from the main guideline.  I tied off a guideline from a reel on the permanent line and we all swam over to, now, the victim.

     He was neutrally buoyant, but for whatever reason, his safety reel was wrapped around the beginning of an offshoot guideline, his double tanks completely empty.  I unwrapped the reel from the permanent guideline and signaled for both Connie and Robbie to take him back to the cenote entrance.  Connie handled everything like a professional.  I was very proud of her composure and competence.  Gunner and I followed the offshoot guideline as I knew it looped back to the main line 200 feet further upstream.  No continuous guidelines were in place from either end.  To this day, I have no idea “why” the victim strayed off the main guideline without using a jump reel and line and put himself in harm’s way.  I will say this for the first time ever, the human mind can be very clever.  There have been many accidents where people have disguise their intentions into making it appear an accident.  Because of what I witnessed the night before, this case is a perfect example.  We shall never know.

      “Connie is truly an icon.  I first met Connie when I came down to DeRosa’s alone to get cave certified in 1999.  I was staying in one of the hotel rooms.  When Connie realized I was there she invited me to eat with her group, which started a 17 year friendship. I have done over a dozen trips with Connie.  There would have been more if schedules would have aligned.  When you are diving with Connie you know you will be taken care of and safety and fun are the top priorities.   The other thing that stands out for me is her respect for the land owners.  She made friends with each owner and she knows all of the children at each site and made it a point to bring a little something for them when we came.”      Greg Matz.

     During late March of 2010 Connie was diagnosed with cancer involving chemo-brain, and lymphedema.  At the beginning, it was a struggle and a challenge.  Finally, after much care and stress, the cancer went into remission, the chemo-brain cleared, but the lymphedema is a lifelong event.  This forced the realization that she would never be able to dive as she is tethered to a machine for daily one hour long treatments.  Her cave diving was physically finished.

    This did not stop or discourage Connie at all.  She was content to stay on the surface, coordinating every aspect of each day of cave diving for her friends.  Hiring local cave diving Instructors as the in-water guides, she could visualize the dives in her mind was all OK with her.  Constantly taking surface photos recording the events that evolved from breakfast, loading the vehicles, traveling to the dive sites, greeting the land owners, and sharing lunches in the jungle. It was all normal routine for her as she made sure every detail was in place to insure that everyone was safe and enjoying their cave diving and their stay in Mexico.

     She once said to Hal Watts, who is a well-known diving icon, that cave diving is a “young person’s sport”.  She recognized that everything in life has their limitations.  Remembering Travis’s words of wisdom, one has to be physically and mentally 100% fit for the sport or don’t do it.  Connie has accepted every challenge graciously and has made it work successfully to this day.

     “Hi Steve, I don't know if you remember that I took my Full Cave Course with you and John Orlowski back in 1992 with Mike Domitrek. Ian and Barb Marshall were a part of the trip. Last year, 2015, I was encouraged by Mike to participate with him on the trip to Mexico with Connie that Mike had been on several times before. Connie, I have to say, welcomes you with open arms. She does pay attention to detail and gets the slightest details addressed. Everything is handled 'First Class'.  Asking her about some of her past travels and I mentioned about traveling to the Dry Tortugas. Well not only did she pass on several links of them to me that she and her husband went back there. Talk about a travel agent. I do notice on her trips everything is done on time. She adheres to the times that she sets. If we're not gone by 8am "who is missing or where is so and so?" She is on top of her game! This year it was a success as well. She is a lot laughs and has lots of stories to tell. She has a magnetic positive personality.”      Marc Beaudry

     Connie estimates that she has performed close to 4,000 dives with at least 1000 cave dives in Florida and over 2,000 cave dives in Mexico.  She worked part-time during the mid-1990s at Ginnie Springs and beginning in 1998 full time.  It was customary to dive several times each week before and/or after work.  She worked there for twelve more years.  She has met or personally knows every diving legend or personality that has walked into the doorways of the Ginnie Springs lodge.

     What she is most proud of is her group trips to Mexico.  To this day, she has successfully organized and conducted over 100 cave groups with over 1000 people participating.  One week in 2009 she had 21 divers from Russia, which she says, “Was my ultimate challenge”!  During late January through Mid-March of 2010 she conducted four different groups of cave divers.  What is truly remarkable of Connie’s group trips is the “repeat” business that she generated.  Several people have participated in between 20 – 28 trips with Connie’s groups.  An incredible feat indeed that proves her unbelieving scope with detail really pays off.

    One of my favorite sayings among many is, “I ain’t dead yet”!   With Connie, she is not even close to ending this 25 year love affair with Mexico and her cave diving group trips.  For the fall of October, 2016 and the winter of February, 2017 she has already accepted several deposits.  She can’t wait for the fall to come again.  Quoting H. Jackson Brown, Jr, “The best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today”.  That is exactly how Connie LoRe cares for her friends and her customers.

Post a Comment