Darrin Spivey and his 15-year-old son, Dillon Sanchez, passed a check-in station on their way to Eagle Nest Sink and the cave dive that would kill them.
They drove about 30 minutes down an unpaved road in the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area, a property in western Hernando County managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
They ventured down a boardwalk built by the state for divers exploring the cave and passed signs placed to warn them of the danger.
But there was no rule requiring them to have the proper certification for the highly technical dive and no gatekeeper to ensure that they had it.
At Eagle Nest Sink, anyone with a scuba tank and fins can slip into the water and descend into the dark, 300-foot-deep cave.
Though neither was certified to cave dive, Spivey, 35, and his son reached depths of 233 feet, according to a diver who recovered their bodies.
Their deaths raise questions about what, if anything, the state should do to regulate these beautiful but dangerous natural attractions to ensure the safety of divers who visit them.
The commission is considering that question with regard to Eagle Nest Sink, according to state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.
“It is my understanding that the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission will be looking at all options available relating to access to this cave,” the senator wrote in an email. “I support the FWC as they go through this process.”
Simpson’s aide, Rachel Perrin Rogers, said since the commission hasn’t reached any conclusions, Simpson “would like to give them the opportunity to fully vet all options before commenting on what restrictions might be appropriate.”
At the six cave sites within Florida’s state parks, divers must show park rangers their certification card, be out of the water by 5 p.m. and dive with a buddy.
Eagle Nest Sink is different because, though it is state land, it is the only cave in the state managed by the commission, which doesn’t require proof of certification.
It’s also very popular and draws between 20 and 40 divers a week, by one estimate.
It’s been called the Mount Everest of cave diving and has seen eight diver deaths since 1981.
Future deaths at Eagle Nest Sink and other caves could be avoided with the right restrictions, said Chester Spivey Jr., Darrin Spivey’s father and Sanchez’s grandfather.
Spivey would like to see divers’ certifications checked by personnel at the park.
“Why not put someone there to make sure divers are certified for cave diving?,” Spivey said. “Maybe it’d help save some people.”
Spivey wants a state-wide ordinance to protect divers.
“From what I understand, my son and grandson and (six) other people died at that site,” Spivey said. “Even one life, whether it’s my own son, grandson, or not, that’s priceless. That way everyone’s comfortable and it doesn’t bring negative publicity. Everybody wins and they don’t have to deal with people like me, fathers and grandfathers that lose loved ones.”
Even when diving is monitored, experts say ultimately responsibility lies with the divers to educate themselves and know their limits. Much like rock climbing and other extreme sports, cave divers know the inherent risk up front.
“The one single problem I’ve seen over the time since I started cave diving in 1987 is the ‘too far, too soon’ mentality of some of the new divers,” said Johnny Richards, a certified cave-diver instructor. “The trend is divers tend to breeze through the courses a little too quickly.”
Richards said some cave-diving courses help open-water divers become cave-certified in little over a week. But Richards, who takes his dive students to Eagle Nest Sink to work on their advanced-mix-gas certification, said the divers he works with have completed four training levels, perhaps over a year, before he takes them to the cave.
“It’s an extremely advanced dive,” Richards said. “There’s not a large margin of error at that depth.”
Richards, like many in the dive community, believe Spivey and Sanchez should not have been diving Eagle Nest because they were not certified to do so.
Spivey had his scuba certification but Sanchez did not and neither had cave-diving certification. They went to Eagle Nest Sink to test out new equipment received as Christmas presents, according to family members.
After they didn’t return, a team of volunteer rescue divers went in and recovered their bodies about 8:30 p.m. Christmas night. Spivey was found at 127 feet and his son at 67 feet. When diving to extreme depths, divers must to breathe trimix — a combination of helium, nitrogen and oxygen — to counteract elevated nitrogen levels at depth, which can make divers feel drunk, said rescue diver Eric Deister.
“It’s awful to see anybody die under these circumstances, (but) those divers had absolutely no business being where they were,” Richards said.
In the three weeks since the accident, the commission has received one request to close the cave to divers and numerous requests from divers and others in the community to keep the spot open, said commission spokesman Gary Morse.
“There are no immediate plans to close it,” Morse said. “That doesn’t mean it won’t change.”
Although public safety is a concern at the wildlife management area, the commission does not regulate diving, Morse said.
“Unlike Florida Parks, our areas are often unmanned,” Morse said. “ Although we do patrol … we just don’t have the ability to man those areas like you would a park.”
Divers should sign in at a check-in station to let park staff know they are diving Eagle Nest Sink, Morse said. However, sometimes the post is unmanned when personnel are attending to other duties, such as burns and surveys, and divers aren’t forced to sign in, he said.
That’s why two signs on the path leading up to the sinkhole cave warn divers of the dangers, Morse said.
Cave-diving certification is checked at six Florida State Parks that allow the sport, said Martha Robinson, spokeswoman for the parks.
Robinson said cave diving is allowed at Ichetucknee Springs State Park in Fort White, Lafayette Blue Springs State Park in Mayo, Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland, Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park in Live Oak, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park in Wakulla Springs and Blue Spring State Park in Orange City. Other parks allow open dives but not cave diving, Robinson said, and each park considers cave conditions, safety and environmental impact when allowing cave diving.
Even at state parks where cave diving is optional, cave certification is usually required. “It’s not just your normal ‘I know how to scuba,’ but actual cave certification,” Robinson said, adding that at parks where cave diving is optional, cave certification is usually required. “That way no one can say they’re not going to do it, but do it anyway.”
Robinson said park rangers are acquainted with local dive shops and cave-diving instructors and can point hopeful cave divers in the right direction after they’re turned away for the day.
“We try not to be police officers standing over the top of the springs,” Robinson said. “We trust you to be a cave diver, we’re not going in with you and holding your hand.”
Robinson said policies for cave diving in state parks balance public safety, protecting natural resources and allowing divers to explore the state’s natural wonders, as long as they accept the risk and take responsibility.
“People love their extreme sports,” Robinson said. “Cave diving is very popular and, in the right place, we certainly support that. We want people to explore healthily.”
Robinson said three people have died cave diving in state parks in the past five years. In 2010 a diver became disoriented at Peacock Springs and died and in 2012 a diver died at Weeki Wachee Springs during a research dive, she said. In 2013 a diver died at Blue Springs after an equipment failure.
With its inherent risks, cave diving draws parallels to mountain climbing and other extreme sports that carry some level of danger.
Kari Cobb, a park ranger at Yosemite National Park, said there are no requirements or restrictions for climbing park sites such as “El Capitan,” a 3,000-foot vertical granite wall, and “Half Dome.”
“Climbing here is very hard,” Cobb said. “People who don’t have a lot of experience tend not to climb here, or pick the few easy routes we have. The sport is self-regulating in that aspect.”
Cobb said the risks of climbing Yosemite “comes with the territory” because of the huge cliffs and valleys at the site, as well as swift weather changes, falling rock or gear failure.
Some 4 million people visit the park every year and the park has to deal with fatalities related to hiking and swimming and other activities, as well as climbers, Cobb said.
When a climbing death occurs, an effort to restrict climbing doesn’t usually follow.
Closing the caves to divers is very real concern in the cave-diving community after an accident, according to cave diver Larry Green, who has been exploring Eagle Nest Sink since the 1980s.
“We always worry about sites being closed,” said Green, who trains divers and also worked on mapping Eagle Nest Sink. “We try to do everything we can to educate the public to the dangers and hazards of cave diving. It’s unfortunate, but a lot of the fatalities are because of a lack of training and lack of knowledge.”
Eagle Nest Sink was closed to diving from 1999-2003 when the land was managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Green and a group of divers worked with FWC to re-open the site to divers after a management plan was put into place, improving access to the location.
Green said when divers were working to re-open Eagle Nest Sink, they suggested checking and verifying diver certification. But, Green said, even at regulated sites, uncertified divers manage to “sneak in.”
“There are signs at the site … telling people it’s dangerous and that people die in caves,” Green said. “People choose to abide by what’s posted, or not.”
Green said other Hernando County dive sites, such as the Diepolder caves on Sandhill Scout Reservation on State Road 50, have private owners who allow a select group of guides to explore with certified cave divers with more than 100 cave dives logged.
“It’s a beautiful, very safe sport,” Green said. “The only thing that can hurt you is you yourself making a mistake … it‘s more of a mental sport than a physical sport other than getting all that damn equipment in and out of the water.”