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It’s Your Call



by Sheck Exley, October, 1992.

Header image: Seventeen year-old Sheck Exley displays his newly set depth record at Zuber Sink [later renamed Forty Fathom Grotto], just before his 18th birthday. Photo courtesy of Mary Ellen Eckhoff and Brian Udoff.

Since I retired from the car business seven years ago, I’ve had a blast teaching algebra and calculus to high school kids in Suwannee County, Florida. Most of the kids have no idea that I am a diver, but a few find out and inevitably ask me to teach them to dive or sponsor a scuba club. I will never do either for fear of encouraging the “macho” so evident in teen-aged males. 

The guy that taught me how to dive, Ken Brock, had more guts than I have. In early 1966, he organized a scuba club especially for teenagers called the “Aquacks” at the Jacksonville YMCA and promptly ordered us to “stay out of caves”. Given the poor technology available to cave divers at the time, abstention was the only rational advice to give to the aspiring diver.

Ken Brock taught Sheck how to dive. Photo courtesy of Mary Ellen Eckhoff & Brian Udoff.

So what did we do?  You guessed it!  While cave diving at Jugg Hole on April 3, I got caught in a current, hit my head on a rock and flooded my mask.  On July 16, at Orange Grove Sink , my partner and I got narked and entangled in our line. Later the same day, I discarded the troublesome line, got lost at Peacock and exited the cave by an unknown route with only a couple of minutes of air left. The next weekend I got lost in a silt out at Ginnie Springs and dug my way out through a restriction on my reserve air supply. Later the same day, my partner ran out of air and attacked me. He survived only because Ken had taught me how to do CPR.

This experience should have stemmed my obvious problems with testosterone excess. Instead, I was portrayed as a “hero” for saving my partner’s life, and became more arrogant than ever. My youthful partners and I—including Joe Prosser, past training chairman of the NSS Cave Diving Section—continued to scare the heck out of Ken with our illicit cave diving escapades and close calls, diving ever deeper in a never ending quest to impress each other and prove how “brave” we were.  By August, 1967, I had hit 237 feet at Zuber Sink, now “Forty Fathom Grotto,” the club record. 

I was the clear leader of the club, as well as its hero. My greatest admirer and emulator was probably my brother, Edward, who was three years younger than me. He bought equipment that looked like mine, gave talks about me in school, and even copied my mannerisms. It was great to be held in such esteem by him and the others.

On June 29, 1968, we stopped at Wakulla Springs for some snorkeling on our way to Morrison Springs, where I planned to try to set a new club depth record. I got cold and got out, but Edward, ever eager to impress me, said he wanted to stay in a little longer. I told him to be careful, then watched him swim out to the deepest section, take a few breaths, and disappear behind the huge ledge. A minute later he reappeared, swimming at a strange angle instead of straight up to the surface. When he got to the surface he kept on swimming instead of clearing his snorkel, then slowly started sinking toward the 125 foot bottom. After an hour of CPR, my mouth filled with his vomit, we had his heart and lungs going again, but he never regained consciousness.  My only brother, Edward, was dead. I was the one who had to make the call to my parents. 

Virtually all human progress since the dawn of time has come from that desire to achieve, excel, and discover; but this desire should never be used as a rationale for cutting corners on safety procedures or leading unqualified partners into danger.”

Left to right: Unknown friend, Sheck Exley, Edward Exley at Cowpen Lake, c. 1967 or 1968. Photo courtesy of Mary Ellen Eckhoff and Brian Udoff..

If machismo stopped upon reaching the age of 20, we could prevent most diving accidents by simply outlawing diving at a younger age. Unfortunately, many of us seem to remain adolescents indefinitely. Don’t get me wrong. I applaud record setting in diving; virtually all human progress since the dawn of time has come from that desire to achieve, excel, and discover. I also recognize that much of this motivation comes from the desire for recognition and esteem, a trait shared by all of us. But this desire should never be used as a rationale for cutting corners on safety procedures or leading unqualified partners into danger. Unless, of course, you want to make a phone call like I did.

Postscript: Exley died two years after writing this story at age 45 while trying to bottom out the world’s deepest sinkhole, Sistema Zacatón in southeastern Mexico, which is estimated to be 339 m/1,112 ft deep.


Underwater Galaxy

Award winning Chinese filmmaker/photographer Fan Ping takes us on a magical journey through watery worlds less traveled.




Text, videos and images by Fan Ping. Images shot on RED Helium 8K.

Blackwater: Diving into the Underwater Galaxy

My most popular short film so far. It’s the BTS video of my friend Songda Cai, who is a Chinese underwater photographer based in Manila, Philippines, and specialized in blackwater photography. The film explained what blackwater is and showcased some of the equipment we use when taking photos, then takes the audiences on a journey with Cai into the unknown to discover the beautiful lives from the deep.

Tranquility – 平静(píng jìng)

Cave – 洞穴(dòng xué)

Show Reel 2019

Places I traveled back in 2019, mostly dark cold water, in 4K.

Diving – 潜水(qián shuǐ)

The Underwater Great Wall

One section of the famous Great Wall located in Hebei Province, China, which was built about 500 years ago in Ming Dynasty, submerged due to the government building a reservoir in 1970’s, and very well preserved in the cold fresh water.

History – 历史(lì shǐ)

Freedom – 自由(zì yóu)

Xujiayuan Village

A village as part of the Lion City, also from Ming Dynasty but 600-700 year ago, now submerged in Qiandao Lake(Thousand Island Lake) near Shanghai. The wood structures and some brick walls are still intact with all the traditional decorations. It’s just a small part of the city, could not film more due to bad conditions, will go back in the future.

Explore – 探索(tàn suǒ)

Unknown – 未知(wèi zhī)

Diving Kobanya

Kobanya, Stone Mine in Hungarian, located in the heart of Budapest. Was used as firearm factory and sanctuary during WWII, now partially flooded with a brewery on top. It’s very much like a maze down there, with a spooky but cool atmosphere from the mixture of metal and huge stones.

Happiness – 快乐(kuài lè)

Fan Ping

Fan Ping is a Chinese photographer and filmmaker currently based in Atlanta, USA, dedicated to showing the beauty of the underwater world to people through his lens.

He became a diving instructor in 2014 and found passion in underwater photography. As Baba Dioum said ‘In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.’, Ping believes that only a good story told with impressive images can influence people and be remembered. He is specialized in combining artistic elements with nature and complex lighting skills in overhead environment, and this personal style has brought him international acclaim, including awards from many major contests like the Underwater Photographer of the Year competition. Ping has also expanded his horizons to cinematography in 2016 in order to better tell the stories to conserve our environment, and with his short films being selected in many film festivals, he has been encouraging more and more people to step into the underwater world to learn what is happening to the planet we live on.

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