I became a cave diver shortly after getting married. Cave diving back then was different than it is now. There weren't very many of us. You would show up at a site like Peacock, Ginnie, or Little River and it was rare that you would see someone you didn't know. Because of advancements in safety, gear and training, this sport has become so popular today that I might go to a cave site and not know any of the 20+ people diving.
But, back in the day I remember hanging out with people like Jim Calvin, Bill Rennaker, Mark Long, and Annette Long, and listening for hours about their stories of these amazing caves that were so far beyond my abilities, because of depth and complexity, that I felt I'd never get a chance to dive them. They told me stories about Eagle's Nest and its 300 feet depth and giant rooms big enough to house a space shuttle in. They showed me pictures of Diepolder's cave where the water was so clear you could see hundreds of feet across the room. I remember thinking in my early 20's that these places might as well be on the moon, for my likelihood of actually seeing these caves in person was pretty remote. Well, it took a few years (more than a decade) but yesterday I made my most awesome dive ever, Diepolder's Cave.
For those of you who are not divers, Diepolder's Cave is located just south of Crystal River in Florida. It's located in the middle of the forest on a Boy Scout reservation. Driving down the winding dirt road past the entrance to the Boy Scout reservation, you'll eventually find yourself coming upon a small opening in the woods. To the right you see a small, pitiful looking pond covered with green scum. I remember thinking to myself, "This might not be worth all the hype." Of course I would have never said anything to my buddy, Tim Bixler, or our guide, Rick Crawford, but I remember thinking that I hoped we hadn't just wasted a bunch of time and money.
Rick spent a few minutes going over a dive briefing telling us what to expect. He explained again what the profile would look like, and what our approximate run times would be. Rick was the perfect combination of very thorough and easy going. I couldn't have felt more confident in my choice dive buddy or dive guide. We finished our discussion and started gearing up.
We got in the water and started our descent. As soon as my head was underwater my attitude changed from, "I hope this isn't a waste of time" to "HOLY CRAP!!!" I wasn't even two feet from the surface and I was overwhelmed by what I was seeing. It was like seeing pictures of the Grand Canyon for many years then actually standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. I was overwhelmed. And I was only two feet from the surface. I had a long way to go still.
As I descended the first 80 feet, it was like the ground had opened up. This small pond on the surface dropped down immediately into what looked like a giant funnel more than 150 feet from top to bottom. This funnel was made of white lime stone and even at 20 or 30 feet below the surface, you could clearly see the formations of rock below you. Sadly, what we saw was indescribable. You'll really have to go see if for yourself. But I'll do my best to tell you what I witnessed.
We made it to the bottom of the funnel (in cave diving we call it a chimney) and at about 180 feet, we entered into this giant room. I'm not exactly certain of the dimensions, but if I had to guess conservatively it's about 600-800 feet long by about 300-400 feet wide and really stinking deep.
Rick attached a strobe light onto the gold line at the left, and then Tim and I started our trek into this giant room on the right. I looked at my computer and it read 180 feet. I kept watching the gold line which was getting deeper by the minute. I looked at my computer again and we past 190, 200, 210, 220 . . . . I thought visibility was pretty good. I had a 35 watt light and could easily see to the bottom. I'd guess the visibility was in the neighborhood of 70-100 feet. Our dive plan was to make a giant circle in this room staying on the gold line that would lead the way. When I got to the far end of the room, I checked my computer again, 257 feet. The floor of the cave was easily another 50-70 feet below me. Down below us we could see slabs of rock big enough to park school buses on. There were boulders the size of houses. But what really intrigued me was the areas of broken rocks down there that looked like perfect little swim-throughs under the rocks.
We made the turn at the end of the room and started heading back toward the exit. Far off in the distance we could see Rick's strobe light flashing to mark our exit. It looked to be 600+ feet away. Looking at my computer it looked like our twenty minute dive would leave us with more than an hour of decompression. I know, that hardly seems fair right?
I tried to take in as much visually as I could. I knew we were only minutes away from our bottom time being over. I looked at sheer magnitude of the cave, the giant rocks, everything. I tried to remember the overwhelming feeling of awe, and the sense of accomplishment of this dive finally happening. Finally, I had to concede that there was just too much to see in twenty minutes. I will have to go back a few more dozen times.
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Initially published on Peter McCumber's website UltimateCaveDiving.com
Peter holds a 100 Ton Master Boat Captain's License. Additionally, Peter holds certifications as a PADI Dive Master, an NSS-CDS Cave Diver, an ANSI 98-01 Commercial Diver, and an IANTD Technical Cave Instructor. Peter is an avid rebreather diver and also holds the prestigious Sheck Exley award for making 1000+ safe cave dives. Peter wants to share his diving passion with others by teaching them how to safely dive the majestic caves of North Florida. Read more about him and his training programs at UltimateCaveDiving.com
Cover photo courtesy of FloridaCaves.com.