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Exploration of Weeki Wachee 2019-20: The Search for The Source Continues

Karst Underwater Research (KUR) divers have just finished up their 2019-2020 season, plumbing the depths of Weeki Wachee Springs, which is now the deepest cave system in Florida. KUR director, Charlie Roberson, has the deets.

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By Charles Roberson, Karst Underwater Research
Header photo by Kirill Egorov

Note: depths are shown in meters of freshwater (mfw) and feet of freshwater (ffw).

Karst Underwater Research (KUR) has a long history of exploration in Weeki Wachee cave system. Dives are conducted under a research permit from the Florida Park Service but the dive season is governed by the rise and fall of the local water table. The main spring entrance is only accessible during severe drought periods, but ever since Twin Dees (aka Little Spring) was connected in 2014, we have had safer and more reliable access to the system. Unfortunately, it’s not accessible at all times. When the groundwater rises beyond certain levels, the entrance shaft at Twin Dees becomes dangerous due to the high flow. Conversely, when the groundwater drops below certain levels, Twin Dees ceases to flow enough water to provide adequate visibility.  It’s during the in-between periods of neither drought nor flood that Twin Dees allows divers to safely access the Weeki Wachee cave system.

Team members prepare for a dive in the Weeki Wachee cave system. Photo by Renee Power.

Last dive season ended in the spring of 2019 with a significant new discovery. Karst Underwater Research (KUR) President Brett Hemphill had spotted a lead on the southeast wall of the White Stripe room during a video dive. Unable to dive for the next month due to work commitments in Palau, Brett gave fellow KUR directors Andy Pitkin and Matt Vinzant his blessing to explore this newfound lead. What Andy and Matt found was a whole new section of cave with significant flow. Not only did this section have flow, but it was also some of the deepest in the system with most passages below 110 mfw/ 360 ffw. Could this be the elusive water source for the entire system? In keeping with the Tolkien theme, they named the section Minas Tirith after the city of Gondor.

The team had to wait until the rains raised the groundwater levels and increased the flow in the small Twin Dees entrance. Conditions started to look promising during the summer, and the team undertook several setup dives to prepare for renewed dive operations. However, the summer rains raised the water levels faster than expected, and the window quickly shut due to high flow.

It wasn’t until December that the team was able to renew dive operations. On December 7th, Andy and Matt returned to the Minas Tirith section and pushed the end of their previous line. They continued approximately 168 m/550 ft into a large funnel-shaped breakdown room. Unable to find an obvious going passage, they fell back to a lead that Matt had spotted on their previous dive. This lead was located about two-thirds of the way into the Minas Tirith section on the southeast wall of a massive room that Pitkin’s son Miles named the Sirius room. The lead at the base of the room was at 113 m/370 ft and quickly led to another discovery that Matt dubbed the Unknown. The Unknown was actually two rooms conjoined in the middle. The first room was nearly vertical breakdown with a large window at the top opening to a shallower second room. Both rooms were large enough that it was nearly impossible to see both walls despite the clear, blue water. The team continued along the right wall of the second room into a small alcove they called the Attic, adding a total of 229 m/ 750 ft into the Unknown.

Battle Plain. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

While the exploration team was underway, Brett Hemphill installed a new habitat in the fissure at 21m /70 ft. This habitat is suspended by bolted anchors and has two seats for divers. As our dives grow longer, this habitat will get us out of the water sooner, allowing us to do our 21-15 m/70-50 ft stops warm and relatively dry. The plan will be to run a habitat scrubber in this habitat the same as we currently do in the 12 m/ 40 ft habitat.

On December 14, Bob Beckner, Derek Ferguson, and Gary Donohue explored and surveyed 255 m /835 ft of passage that they named the Battle Plain. This large passage connects several of the short-cut passages together and has an average depth of 100 m / 330 ft.

Into The Unknown

A week later, Brett and I set off to explore the Unknown. On the way, we plugged in a battery pack and turned on the radio location ring that Andy and Matt had dropped at the top of the breakdown in the Sirius room. With the red LED indicating that the ring was transmitting, we headed down into the passage leading to the Unknown.  Almost immediately we came to the bottom of a large breakdown with what appeared to be a lead to the right. Brett went partially into this lead and came back to tie in. As he was doing that, I went further in the lead since I was going to bird-dog out in front. 

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Unfortunately, as I went further in the passage, it became apparent that it ended in a room with an unique bowl-shaped floor. I quickly headed back and signaled Brett before he tied in his reel. We decided to head up into the Unknown and quickly followed Andy and Matt’s line into a small alcove with even smaller going passage, and we decided as they did that there were other more promising leads to be explored first. When you’re exploring a deep cave with multiple leads, you have to triage and go with the most obvious first, giving preference to the direction you think the cave is heading. This doesn’t always work out, and I’m sure we’ve overlooked some important passages.

Battle Plain Habitat. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

As we came out of the alcove, I scootered across the huge room to see that there was a deeper-looking passage on the other side. I signaled Brett to tie in, and as he did I dropped down to make sure this wasn’t an alcove at the bottom edge of the breakdown. At first I wasn’t so sure, but as I descended below the duck-under I saw a cobalt blue passage with a white floor and walls reminiscent of the Post Mortem passage. These slightly smaller, deep passages seem to be the connective tissue between the huge rooms and shallower trunk passages in this system. As Brett came down the breakdown with the reel, the most obvious passage was to the right, which would hopefully go around the north side of the breakdown room and head east, which is the upstream gradient in this area. I went a few hundred feet and ended in what appeared to be a terminal room. As I scootered around the small room, I noticed a doorway on the right heading east. Just as I was getting my hopes up, I came into another perfectly round room, this time with no other exit. Brett tied off on the far side of the room and started surveying out. We had explored 179 m/ 587 ft of passage that we appropriately named Lost Hope.

On the way out, we checked the radio location ring at the top of the Sirius room. Sure enough, the LED had turned green, indicating that the surface team had successfully performed our deepest radio location to date at 104 m/ 340 ft. As such, we carried the ring back to the Mega-Y, where we dropped it for a second locate.

The Deepest Cave in Florida

The first weekend in February was our next opportunity for exploration. In the meantime, Kirill Egorov had captured some amazing photographs of Mount Doom and retrieved the radio locate ring. Andy and I made plans to check several known leads on the south side of the passage between the White Stripe and Sirius rooms. Andy was to check the leads while I kept an eye on the guideline, and if it went, he would bird-dog out front while I ran the reel. Andy checked what initially appeared to be a large alcove just before the Sirius room but found an ongoing passage on the left side and gave me the signal.

As I tied in the reel and followed him through the archway, it opened up and turned to the south, which was exactly where we wanted to go. This entire section of the cave is below 107 m/350 ft, and as I looked at my gauge, I realized we were exploring at 122 m/ 400 ft. Andy scouted ahead as the passage came up into a large breakdown room. The way ahead wasn’t apparent until we crested the breakdown and saw the going passage on the other side. After 207 m/680 ft of new passage, we came slightly up into the familiar looking White Stripe room. We immediately saw the line and tied into an existing tie-off at about 113 m/370 ft.

Now it was my turn to look around as Andy surveyed the new line. On the way back, I spotted a possible lead on the south side of the breakdown room and dropped down to check it out. In doing so, I not only found a likely going passage but hit 126 m/ 414 ft, setting a new depth record for Florida caves

On the way back, I spotted a possible lead on the south side of the breakdown room and dropped down to check it out. In doing so, I not only found a likely going passage but hit 126 m/ 414 ft, setting a new depth record for Florida caves.

Closer to where we started exploring, I also spotted another likely passage headed southeast. Normally a big loop would be disappointing, but this loop may open up one or more leads in the southeasterly direction, which is the upland gradient in this area.

A dry winter without much rain meant that the groundwater levels were dropping quickly.  With only a few more weekends of diving available due to conditions and the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the state parks, we made plans for two final exploration dives of the season. In mid-March, Brett and Andy checked the deep leads in the loop passage we had discovered on the previous dive. All the leads they checked turned out to be small without significant flow.  

Racing the Pandemic

Mount Doom. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

The next weekend, Matt and I headed in to check several leads, and the team rallied to pull nine safeties from the cave. Our first stop was a lead I had spotted at the start of the large loop that Andy Pitkin and I had put in several weeks prior. I initially looked into this lead while Andy was surveying and expected to see the large breakdown of the Sirius room, but to my surprise that’s not what I saw. I still thought this may just be a short loop, so I asked Matt to go to the base of the breakdown in the Sirius room, and I would quickly go in and look for his light. 

As I went in through the window, I realized immediately that it was a medium-sized room with a passage headed off to the right or southeast. I looked around the room and didn’t see Matt’s light right away, but as I headed over to the left side, I saw the faint glow of his light beyond a duck-under in the Sirius room. I headed over closer and realized it was too small to pass, so I headed out. Matt obviously had the same idea, and we met in the middle. I gave him the signal that it went and signaled him to tie in to the existing line. 

I bird-dogged as Matt followed with the reel, and we quickly entered the passage to the southeast of the room. I caught a quick glance at my depth as we descended past 128 m/420 ft. We dropped into what appeared to be a terminal room with conglomerates of rusty sand dollars on the ceiling. There were two low restrictions at 131 m/429 ft that opened up after a few feet, but there were no signs of flow, so Matt tied off as I started to survey out.

Our next stop was the Unknown. At the base of the Unknown is a room on the right that curves around and looks like it may go. I held on to the line while Matt checked this room again but as before, he found that it didn’t go. Matt and Andy had ended their exploration of the Unknown in the far east corner of the second room, the Attic. We checked that again without success. We also dropped down into the False Hope passage that Brett and I had explored on a previous dive. Unfortunately, the leads we had seen were low and had no signs of flow. Matt did spot one narrow lead with a bit of flow that could possibly skirt the northwest side of the breakdown.

Mount Doom. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

Luckily, we had one more lead to check that I had spotted on the way in at the bottom of Mount Doom. Until recently, Mount Doom was the deepest part of the cave at 124 m/407 ft. The lead was on the far side of a saddle, which made it hard to see unless you were on the far south wall looking straight down. As I came through the restriction up into Mount Doom, I went left over the saddle rather than right toward the exit. I paused long enough to flash Matt, and he quickly headed back my way as I dropped straight down in the crease toward the white sand ripples at the bottom. The duck-under was large enough to pass, and I could see a room on the other side. I went through knowing that the glow of Matt’s light would provide a reference to exit. The room was wide and had at least one going passage to the south. We had no time to explore it further, so it will have to wait until next season.

As I write this season recap at the beginning of summer, the groundwater levels are still dropping due to the unseasonably dry winter. Hopefully, the summer rains will recharge the system quickly so we can get back in and explore the newly discovered passage at the bottom of Mount Doom. Until then, KUR divers will continue to focus on other projects.

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Charlie Roberson is an attorney who lives and works in Gainesville, Florida. He is the founder of FATHOM Dive Systems, LLC, a manufacturing company that focuses on life-support equipment for underwater exploration.
Charlie learned to dive in 1991 while serving in the U.S. Navy. He then spent the next two years diving the wrecks and deep walls of the Western Pacific. After returning to the states, he moved to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida and take up cave diving. Years later, he is still cave diving and currently holds the world record for penetration in an underwater cave at 8,208 m/26,930 ft.
Charlie is a director of Karst Underwater Research (KUR) and has participated in numerous KUR exploration and survey projects. Most recently, he traveled to Mexico for expedition caving projects in the Peña Colorada and Río Uluapan. Charlie also serves as the preserve manager for the National Speleological Society’s Mill Creek Sink Preserve and as the diving coordinator for Florida Speleological Researchers’ Diepolder cave system.

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Karen van den Oever Continues to Push the Depth at Bushmansgat: Her New Record—246m

Karen van den Oever recently broke her own world cave diving depth record by a little more than 10m/33 ft at Bushmansgat cave in South Africa. The S.African cave diver conducted the 8 hour 14 min high-altitude dive on open circuit scuba, breathing trimix 4/90 bottom mix, and suffered mild High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS). Here former world depth record holder, Nuno Gomes who was van den Oever’s cave instructor, offers the details of her record setting dive along with a short history of the women’s depth records.

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By Nuno Gomes. Images courtesy of Karen van den Ever.

Karen van den Oever and her husband Francois Bain

Karen van den Oever, from Johannesburg, South Africa, has dived to a depth of 246.65 m/809 ft. This is equivalent to a dive to a depth of 296 m/971 ft when corrected for an altitude of 1550 m/5,085 ft above sea level. The dive was conducted on October 27, 2022, in Bushmansgat cave, South Africa, and is a new women’s world record cave dive. Karen bettered her own previous world record to a depth of 236.04m/770 ft  (283 m/924 ft correcting for altitude), also accomplished at Bushmansgat cave in 2021.

I actually felt really good after the dive, a little tired but overall, quite good. I felt much better after this dive than the previous one. I’m happy that the dive went well, just thinking about what comes next. I have no definite plans going forward, we are looking into diving some of the caves in Namibia and also exploring some of the caves not yet dived in Zambia but no concrete plans yet.”—Karen van den Oever

Karen and Theo van Eeden, with the signed tag.

Women have been making record deep dives for quite some time. Back in 1981, one of the first deep diving records was made by Sheck Exley’s wife, Mary Ellen Eckhoff (USA). She used a dive propulsion vehicle (DPV) to travel into Wakulla Springs cave, as well as staged tanks for decompression purposes. Mary Ellen dived on open circuit, together with Paul DeLoach and John Zumrick, and they reached a distance of 363 m/1192 ft and a depth of 80 m/260 ft, which was a major dive at the time.

In 1996, Dr. Ann Kristovich (USA), a friend of Jim Bowden, considerably extended the record, reaching a depth of 167 m/548 ft on open circuit at Zacaton cave, Mexico. Ann’s world record dive would remain in place for a long time.

It was not until the year 2000 that another woman, Claudia Serpierri (Italy), would beat the previous record, but this time in the sea (Mediterranean Sea). Claudia would reach a depth of 211 m/692 ft on open circuit, diving from a support ship. This dive remains the deepest sea dive by a woman to date.

Toward the end of 2001, Verna van Schaik (South Africa), was ready to challenge the women’s record. First, she did her deepest dive by reaching a depth of  186 m/610 ft  (223 m/732 ft correcting for altitude), on open circuit, at Bushmansgat cave in South Africa. This was not enough for her, and during her next expedition on October 25, 2004, Verna would go back to Bushmansgat cave to become the first South African woman to get her name in the Guinness Book of World Records by reaching a depth of  221 m/725 ft  (265 m/870 ft altitude corrected), on open circuit. Her deep support diver was the late Dave Shaw (Australia), on closed circuit, who died of respiratory insufficiency at a sub-250 m dive at Bushmansgat in 2005.

View of the surface pool of Boesmansgat cave.

Following Verna van Schaik’s dive at Bushmansgat cave, two women divers died trying to break her record, as follows: 

In May 2010, French diver Brigitte Lenoir, died in Dahab, Egypt during a dive in the Red Sea. The accident took place at 147 m/482 ft while ascending from a 200 m/656 ft, on closed circuit. Her body was recovered with an ROV. 

In September 2017, Bulgarian technical diving instructor trainer, Teodora Balabanova, died attempting a dive to 231 m/754 ft, on open circuit, while her husband, Mihail Balabanov, suffered from decompression sickness. 

Karen van den Oever is a science graduate from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she currently resides. Like Verna van Schaik, who now resides in New Zealand, she is a CMAS diving instructor, and also a former member of the University of the Witwatersrand Underwater Club. 

Her original cave, trimix and blending training was with me. I also trained her husband Francois Bain. 

Unstoppable Karen van den Oever

Karen had previously dived to 201 m/660 ft (241 m/792 ft altitude corrected) on open circuit in Bushmansgat cave in South Africa’s Northern Cape province on February 27, 2020. That dive’s total dive time was 7 hours and 21 minutes. On March 26, 2021, Karen dove to 236.04 m/770 ft (283 m/924 ft), on open circuit, at Bushmansgat cave, using a bottom gas of trimix 6/85. The total dive time was 7 hours and 18 minutes. That dive is the current deep diving Guinness World Record (women).

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Karen’s new world record dive, done on October 27, 2022, was made to a depth of 246.65 m/809 ft (296 m/971 ft), in Bushmansgat cave. The dive was done on open circuit, using a bottom gas of trimix 4/90, and with a total dive time of 8 hours and 14 minutes. The dive would not have been possible without a large team of support divers. 

Karen’s dive computer. Actual depth from rope measurements by independent witnesses was 246.56m/809 ft.

Peter Reid was at 209 m/686 ft (251 m/823 ft); this was his personal deepest dive on closed circuit, and his total dive time was 6 hours and 20 minutes. Don Hauman did deep support at 110 m/361 ft (132 m/433 ft). Her husband Francois provided shallow support and surface support, together with the other team members.

Karen’s support team.

Karen’s Total Narcotic Depth (TND) was 48.06 m/158 ft; the Equivalent Narcotic Depth (END) considering nitrogen only was 9.49 m/31.14 ft, and her maximum Partial Pressure of Oxygen (PO2) was 1.03 Atm. Gradient factors: 40/75.

There were no serious incidents during the dive except that Karen suffered some mild High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS), which ultimately did not prevent her from going any deeper. Karen had some difficulties recovering the evidence tag from her maximum depth because of the tremors that she was experiencing as a result of the HPNS, but in the end she turned the dive mainly because she ran out of bottom time. 

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Nuno Gomes is a professional civil engineer, a CMAS technical diving instructor and a commercial diver. He was born in Lisbon, but his family relocated to South Africa during his youth. He now lives permanently in New York with his family. He has dived all over the world.

He used SCUBA (open circuit) to dive to a depth of 321.81 meters (1,056 feet), inclusive of rope stretch, in the Red Sea off the coast of Egypt near Dahab, in June 2005. The total dive time was 12 hours and 20 minutes. The descent took 14 minutes with two minutes spent at the bottom.

He also used SCUBA (open circuit) to dive to 282.6 meters (927 feet) in the Bushmansgat cave, in South Africa, in 1996. The cave is located at an altitude of 1,550 meters (5,086 feet) above sea level, which resulted in a decompression schedule for an equivalent sea level dive to a depth of 339 meters (1,112 feet) in order to prevent decompression sickness. The total dive time was 12 hours and 15 minutes with four minutes spent at the bottom of the cave.

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