One level of open water certification allows a scuba diver to experience an almost endless variety of underwater environments. However, it is important to understand that cave diving and open water diving are not the same and should not be compared.
Although cave diving certification is a necessity before anyone attempts to enter an underwater cave, this initial training is not enough preparation for the extreme diversity and hazardous conditions specific to each underwater cave system.
Many cave divers prefer the crystal clear water and white limestone in what is now referred to as recreational cave diving sites. Until the recent commercialization of Cancun, Mexico’s vast underwater cave systems, only three or perhaps four sites even existed. One can almost consider recreational cave diving an oxymoron, but not quite. Any properly trained cave diver knows that regardless of water clarity, shallow depth or well-placed, oversized guideline, the combination of an overhead environment and scuba diving can be a deadly one.
Cave explorer Brett Hemphill emerges from an extreme cave restriction
Brett Hemphill began cave diving in 1989. His cavern and introductory cave-diving instructor was Steve Gerrard. At some point during his training, Brett mentioned to Steve his desire to look for and possibly find an underwater cave system. As far as Steve was concerned, the United States had sparse cave pickings and Mexico was the new frontier for cave dives. Steve’s response only served to further fuel Brett’s zeal to find what he desired.
Tampa, Florida and its surrounding areas have gained fame for their tourism and white, sandy beaches. Few underwater caves even exist in the area and the ones that do are less than hospitable as compared to systems located farther north. As for Brett, the next three years were progressive ones. Like many other newly trained cave divers, Brett found himself making a monthly pilgrimage from Tampa to the clear waters and carved white passages of Northern Florida. During this time, he increased his knowledge of local sinkholes and coastal caves, slowly building the skills and attaining the comfort level that results from experiencing horribly low visibility.
Cow Creek Slough Cave System
At one time, two of the deepest sinkholes in Florida were located in Tampa. Sheck Exely was the first diver to explore their depth completely. The enormous expanse of wilderness surrounding the sinkholes always intrigued Brett, but had never revealed more than a few tiny, sulfurous springs that flowed only during certain times of the year. One site in particular stuck in Brett’s mind. That spring had no name, but it was located directly in the center of a swamp called Cow Creek Slough. What made this site so intriguing were the spring vents composed completely of organic debris that extended as far down as a person could stretch an arm. Each of the five vents was approximately 8-9 inches (20-22.5cm) in diameter. This could only mean one thing. The water source came from one singular opening, somewhere deeper beneath the wood chips and clay. After one solid month of digging by hand and finishing with the use of a homemade vacuum system, Brett and dive partner Mark Henderson found the main vertical opening at 7 feet and the horizontal ceiling at 21 feet. The approximate size of what now was the hole, which they had so desperately been trying to make into the cave, was 8 feet in diameter with a larger pocket room at 15 feet, just big enough in which to turn around. At the bottom, as they peered into the small opening, they realized the space just would not get any larger. The passage ahead was only large enough for a single person to crawl through.
Until now, it had been relatively safe to use small bottles during the excavation process because of the straight ascent to the surface. But after many discussions, Brett and Mark needed to decide - walk away or find a way.
During that time, Brett watched a television program in which he saw cave divers exploring a system called Silver Springs. In the field of cave diving, it is assumed that individuals considered pioneers shared the credit for the gear and techniques used in exploring underwater caves. Questioning who did what first was usually based upon opinion and not fact. It was for this very reason the television program held Brett’s complete attention. As he watched more closely, Brett witnessed a diver who had to push a single breathing cylinder in front of him due to the smallness of the cave. One might expect this to be extremely cumbersome, but this diver brought pushing a bottle to the next level. Equipped with buoyancy and a second air source, the bottle almost seemed to be propelled by a motor as the explorer moved through the water with ease and a certain unhampered grace. The diver’s name was Eric Hutcheson, and the method of exploration was called No-Mounting.
It was quite some time before the small spring, with its man-made cave, saw Brett and Mark again. Practicing just did not seem to be enough. Every change to the no-mount rig they had put together seemed to demand the need for some counter adjustment. Finally, feeling confident with their new skill, they made the decision for Brett to attempt to push through the narrow restriction. Once again, he found himself staring at the small passage, which somehow seemed larger on his last visit. As he pushed the no-mount system forward, the realization that there was no turning around raced through his mind. Straight-ahead was the only direction in which he could go, the only place wide enough for him to turn around. Fortunately, the large area at the end of the passage was not an illusion, and neither was the ongoing passage, Brett’s light was then illuminating. Being so close to the large, deep sinkholes might explain why the cave would change so dramatically in the next 200 feet.
The cave told a story of a once grand system. Exiting the small passage, it was easy to tell that during one period in time, it also had been much larger, but now it was filled with sand and debris due to the lack of flow. The rest of the system would tell the same story. Two large rooms were nearly filled with light green silt, and bacterial stalactites covered their ceilings. Near the end of the system, one final passage headed down to a ceiling that continued on, but the floor contained silt so loose and deep that a diver could completely submerge his or herself from head to toe. The once great flow of water that had sculpted the system no longer existed. Within a year, the entrance to the cave had filled itself in completely. Eighty feet down and 295 feet in, an exploration reel still hangs, waiting for the exploration that could have taken place but only a thousand years earlier.
Salt Spring Cave System
Salt Spring is located approximately three-quarters of a mile east of the Gulf of Mexico in New Port Richey, Florida. Although locals considered this site to be well known, it had never yielded more than a few small impassable leads to cave divers over the past 15 years.
Mark Steingard, a long-time friend of Brett Hemphill, mentioned Salt Spring to Bret during the fall of 1997. The springs are located along a naturally formed creek, which spans roughly 100 feet between a small pond and coastal lake. The creek bed consists completely of limestone. Within the creek bed, roughly 7 small vents exist, but each is too small for conventional cave diving methods. During high tide, the vents would siphon water into the ground and during low tide, water would spring outward. However, the water never becomes completely fresh.
Brett decided, after snorkeling the spring run, to return to the area with his no-mount rig. He entered the most distant inland spring vent in the creek. A small bit of initial digging was necessary before he could slide into the vent. The passage opened quickly within the first 7 feet. He continued to move forward another 5 feet. The passage hooked back hard to the right. Suddenly, the floor of the cave system disappeared! Caught off guard, Bret dropped nearly 30 feet before gaining control of his buoyancy. The walls were covered in a dark brown bacterial growth that broke free after each breath left the regulator. As the brown cloud of bacteria descended upon Brett’s head, he continued downward into the endless abyss while searching for a possible tie off. Finally, at 90 feet, with still no bottom in sight, he managed to find a tie off.
After a small excavation on the entrance and nearly a year since its original exploration, Michael Garman, Alex Warren and Brett Hemphill returned to Salt Spring to discover and explore one of Florida’s deepest cave systems with depths in excess of 300 feet.