Text and photography by Curt Bowen
Above: Megalodon rebreather diver Jitka Hynovia explores the log filled head waters of Buford sink

Below: An old land tripod is used underwater to obtain this 30 second exposure of Buford Sink cavern zone. The shot was taken at a depth of 110 feet, looking up the breakdown pile towards the triangle shaped entrance hole.
Nikon D100, 2.8 @ 30 seconds • 10.5mm Lense • Aquatica housing • No Strobe • Green Force video lights used for timed fill lighting.

Below photo inset: Photographer Curt Bowen sets up his underwater tripod system in an attempt to shoot the massive Buford Sink cavern zone.
Photo by Jitka Hyniova
hassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge is an enormous preserve that contains over 33,000 acres of natural Florida wilderness. Located on the central
west coast of Florida, this preserve provides a habitat for deer, fox, waterfowl, turkeys, gopher tortoise, and the elusive black bear.

Stretching between U.S. 19 on the east and the Gulf of Mexico on the west, the Chassahowitzka Refuge contains miles of rolling sand hills that are covered with pine and palmetto forests, low-lying freshwater swamps, and endless winding rivers that lie within brackish saw grass flats. This is one of the few true Florida ecosystems of any great size that is still available along the Gulf Coast. There is, however, much more to this large wildlife habitat, much that is hidden from the sight of the local hikers, campers, and hunters. Just below their feet lie some of the largest submerged cave systems within the state of Florida…the famous deep chambers of the Eagle’s Nest system, siphon drains like Gator, and tombstones.

The whole refuge sits on top of a massive karst region littered with sinks, springs, and siphons. Due to its remoteness, and the difficulty of gaining access through the waist-deep mud swamps, choked pine and palmetto forests, and endless saw grass flats, many of these cave systems still elude even hard-core cave explorers.

Below Illustration: A simple drawing of the size, depth and distance relationship between Buford and Little Gator Siphon.
IWill Walters discovered Buford Sink in 1973; but with the closure of the lands in the 1980’s and 1990’s, all exploration within this region came to a halt. In 1999, the State of Florida opened this land for recreation and continued exploration.

Buford Sink contains one of the most beautiful cavern dives in Florida. A small triangular entrance drops through a thin layer of limestone, and into a massive clear water ballroom. Giant white boulders slope downwards from 70 feet to a cave zone starting at 145 feet. A wide passage then slopes downwards until it pinches down into a twelve-inch high water siphon several hundred feet from the entrance.
Below: Looking up through the entrance you can see the dark silhouette of submerged tree trunks. Located deep within a Florida swamp, you must keep your eye out for large alligators and water moccasins.
It is located deep in a pine swamp, over a quarter mile walk from the nearest dirt road…making access to Buford a challenge in itself. Most of the walk is down an old fire lane, then a short 150-yard march through a mud swamp. Depending on the season, this short march can vary from somewhat easy to knee-deep water and sinking several times up to your waist in thick black mud. Adding a hundred pounds of doubles to your back takes this trek from extremely difficult to almost impossible.

In 2003, explorer Brett Hemphill walked down the small river run on the surface from Buford, and found a small siphon entrance. With his Armadillo sidemount harness, he squeezed downwards through the narrow crack, following the water flow deeper into the ground. At a depth of 80 feet, he encountered a no-mount beach ball sized restriction. Removing both of his sidemount cylinders, he pushed them in front of him—past the extreme restriction, and into the larger passages below. At 145 feet, the passage opened into a large breakdown room that sloped off to one side. Again following the water flow deeper into the ground, he discovered a continuing passage that ended in a 15-inch high bed plane at a maximum depth of 184 feet.
Above Left: The cool waters of Buford sink are inviting after the quarter mile trek through the swamp mud.

Below: A 180 degree view of Buford Sink. Little Gator siphon is located down the small run to the right. Note the wood duck house on the right, placed by the park service in an attempt to repopulate the swamp.
Accruing some decompression requirements, he made his way back towards the surface, through the extreme restriction, then into the small entrance crack where he stopped for the required decompression. Lying face down in the dark tannic waters, he waited for the decompression time to pass.

Suddenly, he felt a log slide down onto his back and leg. Twisting, he dislodged the log; and, without alarm, continued his decompression. But the log again slid back down onto his back. Irritated, Brett twisted his head around to see how this log was positioned. Peering through the tannic water, he soon discovered that the log had a nice row of white teeth. It seems he had decided to do his decompression in a favorite sleeping location of a medium-sized alligator—now resting on Brett’s back.

Completing his decompression time – underneath the gator – Brett slowly slipped out of the tight quarters, trying not to wake up or startle the reptile in the process. After this exploration dive, Brett named the cave Little Gator Siphon.