FORT DETRICK, Md. -- Frank Karafa jumps into the water, eager to begin another scientific diving mission in search of centuries-old artifacts hundreds of feet below the surface.
In a wetsuit with a scuba cylinder strapped to his back, Karafa progresses downward with each smooth kick of his diving fins, passing by fish and even an alligator or two as the daylight from above fades away.
In seconds, he descends into pitch black conditions “like space,” where all life ceases due to a lack of dissolved oxygen in the water -- no creatures, no vegetation, no light. Nothing.
“It’s just completely black,” Karafa said. “It’s eerie, very eerie. The only thing you really have are the lights and special equipment you carry with you.”
Karafa, 61, a civilian employee with U.S. Army Medical Logistics Command at Fort Detrick, has logged 1,567 dives since he developed an interest in the activity as a teenager.
Of that total, 150 to 200 of them have been scientific dives with the Florida Aquarium Dive Operations, Karafa said. He has been certified as a scientific diver by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences since 2009.
Also a Level 1 recreational scuba instructor, Karafa has played a key role in exploring several underwater archaeological sites since then, including old shipwrecks and deep sinkholes where previously unseen artifacts can offer a glimpse of little-known pieces of history.
“I find underwater exploration to be very exciting,” Karafa said. “Discovering artifacts lost to history for hundreds or thousands of years, observing marine life in their native environment, witnessing vibrant reef systems and caverns with beauty that defy description.
“It's truly a world like no other; one with amazing hidden secrets that have yet to reveal the full story of our past or help us understand our future,” he said.
Out of the water
Karafa’s favorite hobby presents a stark contrast from his day-to-day life as a technical writer-editor for AMLC’s Medical Maintenance Policy and Analysis directorate.
He’s been with the organization since 2011, recently transitioning to AMLC when the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Agency was realigned under the first-year command last year.
“I love what I do,” said Karafa, a Florida native and U.S. Navy veteran who served in its submarine service for six years. “I had been trying to get in with the government for years.”
As a technical writer for M2PA, Karafa -- described by coworkers as friendly, outgoing and a hard worker with a team attitude -- ensures every document that comes out of the organization is written professionally and to military standard. Publications include equipment manuals, but also higher-level Army regulatory documents, white papers and responses to medical maintenance taskers from senior leadership.
“Being that expert in writing, Frank adjusts and modifies our documents so they read professionally and technically correct,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Joshua Barto, chief of publications for M2PA.
Barto said Karafa really shines in writing and developing M2PA’s twice-a-year In Focus newsletter, which features helpful information for the Army medical maintenance community.
“This last month, he’s been heavily involved in working to make sure we produce a good product for the Army,” Barto said.
Ask Karafa about his short list of favorite diving spots and he’ll likely tell you about Little Salt Spring.
The prehistoric sinkhole in North Port, Florida, is 220-feet deep and contains evidence of occupation during the Paleoindian and Archaic periods, spanning from 5,200 to 12,000 years ago.
Karafa said there’s a belief among archaeologists that there’s still uncovered artifacts at the bottom, including some of the oldest skeletal remains ever to be discovered, possibly 13,000 years old.
“We just haven’t found them yet,” he said. “There’s almost no oxygen in the water, so things are very well preserved. We’ve found clothing in there. We’ve found skeletal remains with brain matter still in the cranium.”
Among the fossils and relics found at Little Salt Spring, divers have found evidence of mastodons and giant sloths, as well as wooden items carbon dated to over 12,000 years ago and jewelry traced to a specific quarry in Georgia.
On the upper ledge of the sinkhole, which resembles the shape of an hourglass, there were remains of a giant land tortoise showing signs that it was killed and cooked in its own shell, Karafa said. A wooden stake near the shell was carbon dated to 12,030 years ago.
Some of Karafa’s underwater exploits have included site surveys and mapping, setting up artifact grids, artifact recovery, cataloging and photography, another passion that has led to images being published by National Geographic as a freelancer.
He said another interesting dive site was the USS Narcissus, an armed Union gun boat commissioned by the Navy that sunk in 1866 following a major storm.
Karafa also assisted in underwater surveys of several other historic vessels, including mapping the hulls and ship components of an unidentified Civil War-era schooner that was a suspected Confederate blockade runner.
In recording his deepest dive of 130 feet, considered the end of the recreational diving limit, Karafa explored the shipwreck USS Spiegel Grove. The vessel was a former Navy Thomaston-class dock landing ship that sank off the coast of Key Largo, Florida.
“The top of the wreck starts at 45 feet and descends to its full depth of 130 feet,” he said. “Most of my scientific diving was done within an approximate depth of 20 to 100 feet.”
‘Nothing more beautiful’
Karafa said swimming and diving have always come natural to him because he got started at an early age. He was 13 when he learned his neighbor was a diver.
“Every weekend, he would come home, take his dive gear, wash it off and I talked to him about taking me out,” Karafa said. “He’s a former Green Beret and he took me diving all over the place.”
Karafa was hooked from then on.
Diving has since taken him to locales around the globe. Karafa had planned a trip to the Philippines this year for another scientific dive, but has since canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Karafa still plans to dive for fun in May, when he heads back home to Florida, at a site called Devil’s Den, an underwater cavern that has contained numerous artifacts that are now in the possession of the Smithsonian Institute.
Even after so many years, Karafa said it’s the thrill of exploration -- combined with the rush of exhilaration he first felt as a youngster -- that keeps him getting in the water any chance he gets.
“And it’s the beauty,” he said, describing one of his dives out at sea. “I enjoy it because there’s no noise. The animals are out -- sharks, turtles, Grouper; big Grouper, like bigger than I am.
“In my view, there really is nothing more beautiful than seeing all this,” he said. “You really don’t know what’s going on until you’re down there.”