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Wreck In Depth: Prinz Eugen

The second installment of our historical wreck series brought to you by shipwreck diving travel specialists at Dirty Dozen Expeditions. Are you ready to make the jump?

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By Martin Cridge
Header and historical images courtesy of Dirty Dozen Expeditions

The shout from the starboard lookout shattered the silence on the bridge of the British cruiser HMS Suffolk. All the bridge officers immediately rushed to the bridge wing and looked towards the starboard quarter and there they were, the two German ships they had been searching for—the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and the battleship Bismarck. The year was 1941.

Battleship Bismarck as seen from the Cruiser Prinz Eugen.

Scarily for the crew of the Suffolk,the German ships were less than 11 km/7 miles away and their ship was well within range of the 38 cm/15 in guns on the Bismarck and 20 cm/8 in guns on the Prinz Eugen. Realizing the danger, Captain Ellis immediately ordered the wheel on the Suffolk hard over to port and as the rudder started to bite, the British cruiser leant over and began to come around in an arc and away from danger.

Bismarck focusing it’s entire firepower on the fleeing battleship “Prince of Wales”.

The ships were in the Denmark Strait, a narrow sliver of sea between Greenland and Iceland. The Irminger current splits off from the Gulf Stream on the Icelandic side of the strait, clearing the Icelandic side of ice throughout the year. However, the Greenland side, unaffected by the current, features extending and retreating pack ice depending on the time of year. To further reduce the width of the strait, the British had laid a minefield to the northwest of Iceland. 

At the time of the German ships’ passage, it was estimated that the navigable area between the ice and the minefield was around 97 km/60 miles. It was in this area that the Suffolk and her sister ship, the Norfolk, were patrolling. Conditions were difficult and in addition to the ice and mines; wind, snow, and atmospheric conditions, all of which could play tricks on lookouts’ eyes, meant false reports weren’t uncommon. The cold air flowing over the warmer water towards Iceland also caused dense fog banks to form off the Icelandic coast. The crew of the Suffolk hoped that one of these fog banks would  save them.

The Prinz Eugen in the Panama Canal on the way to Bikini Atoll.

The German ships were expected to come from the northeast, and the two British cruisers steamed up and down the Denmark Strait in a northeast/southwest direction. It was the southwest leg that Captain Ellis feared the most, as the German ships would be coming up behind him and would be hard to spot. Although the Suffolk had radar, the radar of that time wasn’t very effective across the stern arcs of the ship.

His worst fears realized, Captain Ellis now hoped the fog the Suffolk was heading into would hide them from the German ships. He had no way of knowing if the German ships had seen him. The first sign that  the Suffolk was spotted would be when German shells started falling out of the sky around his ship. The Suffolk was no match for the German ships, her role was  to find the German convoy and then direct the heavy British ships that had already left Scapa Flow to intercept. To engage the Germans would be suicide, even if it was just the Prinz Eugen. Although the Suffolk had the same complement of 20 cm/8 in guns as the German cruiser, she was built to the 10,000 ton treaty limit whilst the Prinz Eugen was not—and was, therefore, more heavily armoured.

In the fog, Captain Ellis allowed the German ships to draw past his position before coming around and latching onto their port quarter at a distance of around 19 km/12 miles: the limit of the radar set onboard.

The German ships had been hoping to reach the Atlantic ocean undetected in order to start commerce raiding activities, disrupting the Atlantic convoys to and from the USA and Canada. Now that they had been spotted, Admiral Lutjens on the Bismarck had a choice: he could turn and attack his pursuers, or he could press on and hopefully get into the wider Atlantic where he had a better chance to shake them off. He chose to press on. Unbeknownst to Lutjens, the British battlecruiser HMS Hood and battleship HMS Prince of Wales were steaming out to confront him before he could disappear into the vast Atlantic. 

At 05:37 on May 24, 1941, the Prince of Wales sent an enemy sighting report saying they had spotted the German ships at a distance of 27 km/17 miles, and seven minutes later the Hood sent a similar report saying the Germans were now at 23 km/14 miles. Admiral Holland, in charge of the British ships, ordered them to turn 40 degrees in order for him to shorten the range to the German ships. Unfortunately, only the forward turrets of the British ships could fire on the German ships, but Holland knew if he could get closer and turn, he could fire a greater broadside than the Germans could. Also, at greater ranges, he knew that his ship the Hood was in danger of being hit and damaged by a plunging shell due to her lack of deck armour, and that this risk decreased the closer he was to the German ships. He was also concerned about the Prince of Wales—rushed out of the shipyard, she still wasn’t battle ready—in fact, she still had civilian employees onboard trying to fix various issues, especially with her guns.

Holland made another signal, and the two British ships turned another 20 degrees toward the German vessels. Slicing through the ocean swell at 28 knots, both British ships closed in on the Germans, the Prince of Wales 750 m/0.5 miles or so behind the Hood.

The four ships were now just over 19 km/12 miles apart. On the German side, the Prinz Eugen was leading the Bismarck. On the British side, the Hood was leading the Prince of Wales. Holland’s plan was to concentrate the attack on the Bismarck first. At 05:52, the fire gong sounded on the Hood and she fired her first salvo of shells—not at the Bismarck, as planned, but at the Prinz Eugen. The Hood had misidentified the German vessels. The Prince of Wales, realizing Hood’s mistake, immediately started firing upon the Bismarck. Within minutes, all four ships were firing at each other. 

Guns of Prinz Eugen.

The Germans were concentrating their fire on the Hood and quickly found her range. After the third salvo of shells from the German ships, the Hood was hit, possibly by shells from the Prinz Eugen, starting a fire on her boat deck. 

Now at around 13 km/8 miles apart, the fifth salvo of shells left the German ships. Whilst they were in the air heading towards his ship, Holland gave another order for the British ships to turn to port so that they could bring a full broadside to bear on the Germans. As the bow of the Hood started to come around, there was a massive explosion, and almost instantly the ship broke in half as a massive column of smoke and fire shot high into the air.

The Prince of Wales, following close astern, had to make an emergency turn to avoid the wreckage of the Hood. As they passed the scene, the stern of the Hood had already disappeared, and the bow rose up and into the sky before slipping back into the deep, dark ocean. In that brief moment, 1,415 people lost their lives. Only three survivors were ever found.

Bismarck firing on HMS Prince of Wales.

With the Hood gone, the Germans now concentrated their fire on the Prince of Wales. Just after 06:00, a 38 cm/15 in shell from the Bismarck tore through the compass platform, killing or wounding everybody there except the ship’s captain. Having received a number of hits from both the Prinz Eugen and Bismarck, the Prince of Wales made smoke, turned away, and broke off the engagement.

In less than 10 minutes, it was all over. The British had received a bloody nose, which caused a serious loss of morale in the UK when the news broke, but the British weren’t in favor of letting the Germans get away.

Fortunately for the British, the Prince of Wales had managed to hit the Bismarck three times, and two of these hits would prove decisive. One hit forced the Bismarck to shut down two of her boilers due to flooding, which caused her to lose speed. Also, a hit forward caused more flooding that left the Bismarck trailing streams of heavy fuel that the British could follow.

Lutjens knew that he couldn’t carry on his mission without getting his ship repaired first, so just after 08:00, he changed course for France. Suffolk, Norfolk, and the Prince of Wales, still following the German ships, altered course as well. They all headed towards the French coast.

Later that day, Lutjens gave orders for the Prinz Eugen to carry on the raiding mission by herself and gave permission for the ship to detach. Just after 18:00, whilst the ships were passing through a rain squall, the Bismarck turned to confront her pursuers. This unexpected maneuver startled the British, and both the Bismarck and Prince of Wales started firing at each other. Whilst neither side scored any hits, the Prinz Eugen had managed to slip away undetected and head into the Atlantic ocean alone.

Then followed one of the greatest naval chases of all time. Every British naval ship in the area headed out to cut the Bismarck off from reaching the safety of the French coast. In the end, they succeeded, and the Bismarck was finally sunk at 22:40 on May 27.

The Prince of Wales would be repaired and returned to service only to be sunk by Japanese airplanes on December 10, where she became the first battleship to be solely sunk by aircraft in open seas.

The Prinz Eugen ultimately had to abandon her commerce raiding mission due to fuel and machinery problems and headed to Brest for repairs docking on June 1.  

The contract for building the Prinz Eugen was placed with the Krupp Germaniawerft shipyard in Kiel, Germany, in November 1935 with her keel being laid down the following April.

Prinz Eugen in all it’s glory, docked in Kiel.

In the presence of Adolf Hitler and other select guests, the ship was launched down the slipway on August 22, 1938, to much fanfare.

Also in attendance was the Hungarian Regent, Vice-Admiral Mikios Horthy de Nagybanya, the last Fleet Commander of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, and briefly Captain of the Austro-Hungarian battleship Prinz Eugen during World War I.

The German Navy was originally going to call the Prinz Eugen “Tegetthoff,” after Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, who had delivered a crushing defeat to the Italian Navy during the Seven Week War in 1866. Hitler, however, not wishing to offend Mussolini and his new Italian allies, decided on naming the ship Prinz Eugen instead.

After her exploits with the Bismarck, the Prinz Eugen spent the rest of 1941 docked in Brest. With her were the German battleships Schamhorst and Gneisenau. There they became the focus of regular bombing attacks by the RAF, and it quickly became clear that their situation would soon become untenable if they stayed in Brest.

Hitler decided that the ships should be redeployed and that they should make for Norway to support operations there. The ships had a number of options for the journey to Norway. Prinz Eugen could retrace her steps and follow the route back through the Denmark Strait that she had taken with the Bismarck, or she could take the shorter but more dangerous route through the English Channel. Hitler decided the ships should make a daring dash through the English Channel. 

On February 11, the three German ships and their escorts managed to slip undetected out of Brest and  started their perilous journey toward the English Channel. Although both the Schamhorst and Gneisenau hit mines, they all managed to slip by the British forces and, once again, the Prinz Eugen had humiliated the British.

That humiliation, however, was short lived again on February 23. During their journey to Trondheim , the British submarine HMS Trident managed to hit the stern of Prinz Eugen with a torpedo, causing serious damage. After repairs in Germany were completed, the Prinz Eugen spent the rest of the war in Baltic waters. Prinz Eugen saw out the war supporting German forces on the Eastern Front as they were pushed back by the Russians. In March, she fired almost 5,000 shells from her 10 and 20 cm/4.1 and 8 inch guns, bombarding Russian-held positions. Prinz Eugen sailed for Copenhagen on April 19 where she joined the German light cruiser Nürnberg.

Captains Graubart (USN) and Reinicke (Kriegsmarine) aboard cruiser Prinz Eugen in 1946.

As the war in Europe headed towards its conclusion, the Prinz Eugen was ceremonially decommissioned by her crew on May 7, and was taken over by the Royal Navy the following day. From Copenhagen, the Prinz Eugen was escorted to Wilhelmshaven by the British cruisers HMS Dido and HMS Devonshire; once there, the Prinz Eugen was dry docked.

Although the Americans didn’t have a use for the Prinz Eugen, they were keen for the ship not to end up in Russian hands. In the end—to stop the arguments—the remains of the German fleet were divided up into a series of lots which were drawn from a hat. The Americans drew the Prinz Eugen. The Prinz Eugen was commissioned as a war prize into the US Navy on January 5, 1946. She soon departed Bremerhaven for Boston with a mixed American-German crew consisting of 574 German officers and sailors, supervised by 93 American officers and sailors under the overall command of US Navy Captain Arthur H. Graubart.

After an uneventful journey, the Prinz Eugen arrived in Boston around January 22, and the US Navy began examining their new prize. The large, passive sonar array that had proved so valuable to the Prinz Eugen for detecting other ships and submarines was removed and installed on the submarine USS Flying Fish for testing. The ship was then moved to the Philadelphia Navy Yard where investigations of the Prinz Eugen’s fire control system could be carried out, leading to the removal of her front 20 cm/8 in guns. 

By May 1, the last of the German crew had left the ship and were returned to Germany. The Prinz Eugen arrived in Bikini Atoll the following month with just a skeleton American crew onboard to be used as part of Operations Crossroads nuclear testing.

Operation Crossroads, Target Fleet. Photo by US Navy.

For the first nuclear test designated “Able,” the Prinz Eugen was moored around 1,100 m/0.70 miles from the planned zero point above USS Nevada; for the second test, “Baker,” the ship was moored around 1,600 km/ 1 mile from the detonation point under LSM-60. After both tests, the Prinz Eugen was relatively undamaged but—as with other ships that survived the second explosion—she was now highly radioactive. Along with a number of other vessels, the Prinz Eugen was towed to Kwajalein for decontamination and was largely forgotten about until December 21, when she was observed to be listing with her stern low in the water.

Attempts were made to beach the Prinz Eugen on Enubuj Island in Kwajalein Lagoon, which ultimately failed when the ship grounded on a coral ledge just offshore. The ship continued to take on water and capsized in the early hours of the following morning. Due to the radioactive contamination, not much could be done and the ship was left where it was. The ship was resurveyed again in the seventies and found to be radiation-free, although the report noted that all the ordnance still onboard and residual fuel would need to be removed before salvage operations could be carried out; so, once again, nothing was done. The report did state, however, that all the fuel should be removed within the next 30 years whether the ship was salvaged or not.

In the end, it took until 2018 when a US Navy-led salvage team from the Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV) successfully removed 229,000 gallons of fuel from 173 tanks on the Prinz Eugen. Using a method called hot tapping, the fuel was pumped onto an oil tanker moored nearby for disposal and recycling. The tanks were then resealed to prevent leakage of any residual fuel left in the tanks.

Oil removal from Prinz Eugen. Photo by US Navy, Leighahn Ferarri, Chief Mate, U.S. Naval Ship Salvor

Diving the Prinz Today

Nowadays, two of the ship’s three propellers can be seen poking out of the water at low tide. The third was salvaged in 1979 and is now on display at the Laboe Naval Memorial in Kiel, Germany. From the stern, the upturned hull stretches out and disappears into the crystal blue water of the lagoon. Divers can drop down to the seabed 12 m/39 ft below neat rows of portholes that allow them to peer into the aft compartments. Toward the bow, the seabed slopes away leaving the bow hanging in mid-water at around 36 m/117 ft.

The 8-inch guns at the stern of Prinz Eugen. Photo by Martin Cridge.

As divers head toward the bow, two barrels of the aft 20 cm/8 in guns come into view as they lie on the seabed. Above the gun barrels is a hatchway into the wreck that offers divers the chance to explore the aft compartments inside the wreck. As the ship capsized, most of the ship’s upper superstructure was crushed underneath the ship as she rolled over. Some parts of the superstructure broke away, however, and masts and gun directors lie scattered in the sand around the vessel. On the vessel itself, divers can find anti-aircraft guns and torpedo launchers still armed with torpedoes. An open hatch allows divers to view racks of spare torpedoes in their storage compartment.  

An overgrown torpedo on the Prinz Eugen. Photos by Martin Cridge.

Various openings allow exploration of the topsy-turvy world inside the vessel. Off the main corridors are cabins with upside down beds and tables fixed to what is now the ceiling with chairs that have fallen to the now floor. Some lines have been laid inside the vessel in the past, but these shouldn’t be relied upon for navigation. Divers glancing out into the blue from inside the ship will often see reef sharks and eagle rays cruising by, and the crevices on the upturned hull are favorite hiding places for the many octopuses that can be found on the wreck.

Photo by Martin Cridge.

Venturing deeper into the wreck, machine and generator rooms can be found along with galleys, mess decks, heads (toilets), bathrooms, and storage rooms. Even though the Prinz Eugen isn’t a particularly deep wreck, one’s time underwater soon comes to an end. With so much exploration to do, the time passes quickly. 

Prinz Eugen, propellers. Photo by Aron Arngrimsson.

As we like to say at Dirty Dozen, “So many wrecks, so little time.”

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Cave

The Taming of the Slough: P3 Edition

Explorer Steve Lambert reports on the latest exploration push at Peacock 3, aka P3, in Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park, enabled by long range scooters, CHO2ptima rebreathers, electric heat, and a deco habitat with scrubber. Having teamed up with Karst Underwater Research (KUR), Lambert and friends have now pushed P3 penetration to 2286 m/7500 ft, at depths to 61m/200 ft with run times in excess of 5-6 hours. Scoop that booty!

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By Steve Lambert. Header image: P3 deco habitat at 6m/20 ft by Fan Ping. Images courtesy of Steve Lambert unless noted.

Peacock Springs in North-Central Florida is almost synonymous with cave diving. Since the dawn of the sport, divers have been exploring the beautiful blue sinks that now make up Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park. Many of the household names in cave diving took part in the exploration of the system in the 60s and 70s, and even more well-known names did the full survey in the 90s. The last significant exploration was done in 2010, when Agnes Milowka and James Toland connected the system with Baptizing springs, adding over 3,084 m/10,000 ft to the total length of the system. 

My first experience with Peacock 3 (P3) was during my full cave course with Reggie Ross, the former training director for the NSS-CDS. I stood near the system map tucked in the corner of the Peacock 1 (P1) parking lot, shivering in my 5 mm wetsuit and kicking myself for being too cheap to fork over the money for a drysuit while listening to Reggie explain what to pay attention to while diving a siphon. I vividly remember the deep tunnel sticking out to me, thinking it didn’t belong with the rest of the park. It was strange to me that a system so big would have such a drastic and seemingly random change in depth. Of course, at that time, I didn’t have a “feel” for what caves do. I just thought it was strange. 

Several years later, in May of 2019, Paul Heinerth and I decided to go for a dive past the restriction at the bottom of Hendly’s Castle. Paul said he hadn’t been back there in years, and it sounded like an intriguing dive to me. Coincidentally, that morning we ran into James Toland while gearing up in the parking lot. He had the end of the line in the deep section and shared with us how to navigate through the restriction and what to expect in the passage below. When I curiously asked him why he turned when he did, he said he wasn’t able to see because of how silty the area was. 

Using Sidewinder rebreathers and trimix, Paul and I swam down to the bottom of Hendly’s Castle and, thanks to James, we were able to find our way through the restriction and into the lower section. The passage was stunning. Incredible Goethite formations blanketed the ceiling, like nothing I had ever seen. Intensified by the subtle narcosis overtaking me, I was awestruck at the unique features of the passage. We swam at an enjoyable pace, assisted by the slight siphon. I was floating along the line with Paul just behind me, soaking up every second of the dive, when all of a sudden I was greeted by a “Saber” arrow at the end of the line. 

I was in disbelief that we had reached such a remote place so easily and unintentionally. Suddenly, James’s words stuck out to me—“because I couldn’t see.” I was hovering there, and I could see. A decompression penalty was piling up and I knew I couldn’t stay long, but I could not pass up the opportunity. I scrambled to tie in my safety reel and set off. James had tied off at what seemed like the end of the passage with the right side tapering off into mud, but the left side looked promising. The flow had to be going somewhere. 

I headed off toward the left where there was a breakdown pile. The silt I knocked up seemed to be sucked into it. I could tell that was where the water was going. As the adrenaline of seeing something new coursed through my veins, I decided to “modify” a few things and see what was going on. I shoved a few pieces of breakdown to the side, stirring up clouds of fine clay silt but opening up a space just big enough to fit my head and shoulders into. I saw black. A hill was sloping upward and above it was only darkness. I wiggled forward, but the scrubber cans of my sidewinder prevented me from getting any further. The silt was beginning to obstruct my view, and I watched as the promise of finding something new was overtaken by a gray cloud of silt. 

Suddenly fear started to creep into my mind—that little voice that says, “think about how far you are from home, and now you are in zero vis in a passage you aren’t familiar with.” Excitement morphed into fear, and I quickly spooled up my safety back to the main line, in a hurry to be back to where I could see Paul. We swam back to the cavern and swam in circles to stay warm as we did our deco. The dive was 5 hours and 45 minutes. I finished cold and tired, but excited for the potential of what might lie beyond the breakdown. 

My Return to P3

During the two years before I returned to P3, that darkness was always in my head. I tried getting several buddies to come with me to take a second look at the area, but my story wasn’t convincing enough to get lazy divers to “swim like a peasant” in a place where DPVs are not allowed. During these two years an important piece of this story was born, Dive Rite created the chest mounted CHO2ptima rebreather. 

 Jefferson Joel Marchand decompressing in comfort. Notice the scrubber canister.

In April of 2021 I was finally able to find a diver who feared neither deco nor swimming; Zeb Lily was in town and I conned him into going with me. Not sure if I had embellished my own memory in the past two years, I anxiously swam back to the breakdown choke. I could see the black hole where I had “adjusted” several large rocks on the previous dive. I persuaded a few more pieces of breakdown to identify as positions to the right and left of their natural state, and with my CHO2ptima, I was able to squeeze through. While in the breakdown, I could feel the flow intensifying and continued to wiggle forward, trying my best to stay ahead of the silt cloud I was creating. At the same time I was memorizing the shape of the passage so I would not panic while trying to find my way back through the restriction in bad visibility. 

The moment I popped out into an absolutely massive room was surreal. Visibility was markedly better than in the passage, and the temperature was noticeably warmer. Even with the improved visibility, from right to left my light did nothing to penetrate the darkness, and I was following an upward slope into the unknown. It was one of those rare moments when exploration goes exactly how you want it to. Instead of pinching off in some sort of death trap, the cave went onward. I savored the moment and did my best to find the way on, but the passage was so massive I was disoriented. I swam in a zig zag until my reel ran out of line, and tied off at 41 m/135 ft on the left wall of what seemed like a massive debris cone. 

I surveyed out and Zeb and I exited, ecstatic that we had found something new in such a thoroughly explored system. Once again I thought of what James Toland had said when he and Milowka connected Baptizing to Peacock back in 2010. “Many divers from the Florida cave diving community are focusing on exploration around the world, but I think it’s important to focus on exploration in our own backyard – a little something I like to call tailgate diving,” he said. “There is still a lot of cave here waiting to be pushed, and with the evolution of dive gear and divers alike comes the ability to do deeper and longer dives. This opens up new and exciting opportunities that were overlooked or never considered in the past.”

More Cave To Go

After Zeb and I discovered that the cave continued, I ramped up my efforts to recruit buddies for exploration at P3. On the next dive, we continued from where I had tied off at the top of the 41 m/135 ft mound and continued downward, back to 55 m/180 ft, where a spring vent was coming out of the wall. I remembered having heard people speculate that Lower Orange Grove was tied to P3, and was very excited. The entrance was too small to go into without advanced planning, so we tied off and surveyed out from there, but the springing passage certainly had our attention. 

On the way out of the massive room, while going back through the breakdown restriction, I noticed that the flow from the newly discovered room and the flow form the previous EOL was combining, and going off in a different direction through the breakdown. I quickly grabbed my reel, and proceeded to empty it into the siphoning passage. I turned the dive with an empty reel and safety spool, extremely excited that we had located the continuation of the siphon, and ended in a large passage. The next dive was going to be good.

The next dive was one of the best I’ve ever had. Adam Hughes and I arrived as the gate to the park opened, and we pushed off shortly after. Worried about what kind of decompression obligation we might encounter, we swam along the 61 m/200 ft passage as fast as possible. Arriving at the end of the line in a borehole passage, we soaked up every moment, as it is a rarity in modern Florida cave diving. We slowed down to a relaxed pace and savored each foot of line that emptied off of our reels. We navigated through a large bedding plane and ended up in a springing passage. The visibility was perfect, but the passage seemed to get smaller and smaller. Eventually we had to tie off, realizing that the passage was probably an in feeder, and not the continuation of the siphon. We surveyed out and completed our decompression for a six and a half hour dive. 

We started our next dive beelining for the EOL. Right before the spring vent, we found where the siphon continued on. We tied in and once again slowed down to enjoy the exploration. The passage was big, and the flow was strong. In a few fleeting moments of perfection, line fell off the exploration reel effortlessly, as the siphon pulled us deeper into the earth. After 244 m/800 ft had disappeared, the passage once again seemed to pinch off. Following the flow seemed to take us to a hole in the ceiling, once again pinched off by breakdown. 

Photo courtesy of Fan Ping.

We pushed and pulled, and rocks began to drop down on our heads. The hole was about 0.6m/2 ft wide, and after a decent workout, we had a mound of large rocks under the hole. I poked my head up and could fit my shoulders through, but because of our “modifications” the visibility was reduced to almost zero. I felt with my hands, and it seemed like once again we had broken into a room, and I was excited to come back to confirm our findings. The increasing flow of the siphon made the journey back to the cavern quite difficult, and I began to realize that at around 1,372 m/4,500 ft of penetration at 55-61 m/180-200 ft of depth, we had come close to the limit of what was possible on a swim dive. Our lungs burned from the hard work we were doing at depth, as well as the long exposure to high PO2. We were going to need help. 

A Little Help From My Friends

I had been talking to Brett Hemphill with Karst Underwater Research (KUR) about the new find, and after explaining our situation, we decided it was time to put the project under the KUR permit. The permit would allow us to continue the exploration and documentation of the system while utilizing more tools to increase our safety and efficiency. The permit would also allow us to stay in the park after hours, as the dives were getting to a length that did not allow us to complete them within the regular park hours. 

Having the backing of KUR, and the tools that come with it, we were able to make quick progress of the exploration. Jefferson Marchand was back in town from the Dominican Republic, and the two of us made the project our priority, diving every weekend we were able. While some dives ended with confusion, most of them ended with empty reels and smiles. 

The cave alternates between borehole passage and large dome rooms choked by breakdown. The passage is mostly in the 58 m/190 ft range, and the tops of the debris mounds in the rooms usually go to around 46 m/150 ft. Each time a room is encountered, divers have to wiggle through breakdown restrictions to get both in and out of the room, which makes the dive technically challenging, especially considering the amount of equipment required to be carried by the divers. 

The author’s dive profile. #Gabe says

There comes a point when a dive has such unique challenges that equipment doesn’t exist to meet them. Luckily, KUR has more than a decade and a half of experience with these kinds of problems, so Jefferson and I were able to draw on their experience to develop solutions and keep exploring. We bought a 1364 l/300 gallon intermediate bulk carrier (IBC) container and turned it into a habitat, which Brett Hemphill helped us to install in the cavern. 

With help from Andy Pitkin, Matt Vinzant, and Daniel Vickers, we built a habitat scrubber, which made the long decompressions much safer. It had the added benefit of allowing us to remove all of our equipment and relax while staying warm. In the habitat we could eat, drink, watch movies, and chat. We also created very large battery packs in case of a flood during the in-water portions of the deco and a two-way telephone system that allowed easy communication between divers and surface support. 

Dive Rite was a very big supporter of the project. Our equipment was built with the aid of their facilities, and in addition to sponsoring much of our gas, they helped with scooters, staged rebreathers, and regulators for safety bottles as well. It would not have been possible for us to acquire the massive amount of equipment necessary for the exploration without their help. 

“The current end of line is around 2,286 m/7,500 ft. At the peak of our efforts, we had over 20 safety bottles staged in the cave and the dives were running up to 12 hours—even with a relatively aggressive profile.”

Unfortunately, Jefferson had to return to the Dominican Republic, and things I had been putting off were catching up to me, so progress came to a temporary halt. We were also having trouble with our staged safety bottles in the back of the deep section corroding much quicker than expected. We lost gas due to corrosion in several bottles after only three months. 

During this pause, we have been formulating a plan to deal with the increasing demands of the dive. This summer of 2022 we are gathering a group of people who have the experience on sidemount rebreathers to do such a challenging dive, and who will commit to the project. We are also hoping to prepare a second habitat to put somewhere around Hendly’s Castle to further increase our safety margin. 

We will be making further attempts to locate the resurgence in the river and push from that end. As the crow flies, there is still almost 2438 m/8000 ft between our end of line and the river, and caves usually don’t go in straight lines. No matter what happens, it is going to be a massive undertaking and will require a full team of push divers and support divers to make the project a success. 

Just like in the 90s when Mark Long was the first person able to explore the system, because he was the first to have tanks big enough to give him the required gas for such an extreme dive, we were only able to continue exploration in this section because of the current diving technology including; long range scooters, removable chest-mount rebreathers, habitats and habitat scrubbers, dry suit heat, waterproof tablets for entertainment, and last but most certainly not least, reliable dive computers that can accommodate multiple gasses and adjustable algorithms was available to us. 

I shudder to think about how little cave might be left in Florida if Woody Jasper and the other incredible explorers who came before us, had access to the equipment we are using today. 

I shudder to think about how little cave might be left in Florida if Woody Jasper and the other incredible explorers who came before us, had access to the equipment we are using today. If all goes well, we will use the incredible tools we have access to today to push the cave until the connection to the river is confirmed.

Additional Resources:

Ezine Articles: The Taming Continues: The Peacock to Baptizing Connection by Agnes Milowka & James Toland

Cavesurvey.com: Peacock Springs

NSS-CDS bookstore: THE TAMING OF THE SLOUGH – HISTORY OF PEACOCK SPRING by Sheck Exley


Steve Lambert lives in North Florida where he works at Dive Rite and is actively involved in the exploration and survey of underwater caves with Karst Underwater Research. He frequently joins expeditions with Beyond the Sump and Hole Patrol. His hobbies include quitting when things get too hard, residential construction, and compiling Kpop playlists.


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