State agency bars access to cave divers' Everest

Dick Schawn of Indiana reels in his primary line while exiting the deep cave at the bottom of Eagle's Next.
The basin at Eagle's Nest drops below 200 feet and approaches 300 feet in one section. Local dive instructors are upset about losing access to the site.
[Special photo: William Dooley]

Eagle's Nest, a Weeki Wachee area cave world famous among divers, is off limitsfor now - perhaps permanently.


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 23, 1999

WEEKI WACHEE -- Eagle's Nest is a pleasant-looking little pond, about 200 feet across, west of Weeki Wachee. The water is usually clean and palmettos and bay trees grow in bunches on the shore.

Nothing about it, though, suggests the magnificence below the surface -- a cave with chambers as large as gymnasiums and water as clear as air.

It has become famous as maybe the best cave-diving spot in Hernando County, which has some of the best cave-diving in the world.

Eagle's Nest sinkhole near Weeki Wachee descends about 180 feet into a gymnasium-sized room and is one of the most famous cave-diving spots in the world, according to local diving instructors. Divers' access is being restricted to the site for the near future as the Southwest Florida Water Management District acquires the land. [Times photo: Maurice Rivenbark]
The owners of the land have traditionally either granted divers use of the sinkhole or done little to keep them away. But at the end of this month, after a long negotiation, the 720-acre tract that includes Eagle's Nest will become the property of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The state has already restricted access to the land. Diving there will be forbidden at least until a management plan has been approved -- a process that often drags on for more than a year -- and maybe permanently. To cave-divers and instructors, it is as though they have been deprived of Everest or Denali.

Several European diving magazines have run features on Eagle's Nest, and foreign divers regularly make the pilgrimage there, said Sandra Derksen, a Spring Hill stockbroker and avid diver.

"How would the general public feel if they couldn't visit the Grand Canyon? To cave divers, this has a similar effect. It's like a national treasure, actually an international treasure."

But the problem with this argument, and with cave-diving in general, is its notorious danger, said Kevin Love, Swiftmud's land manager. Even licensed and experienced divers face risks, he said; venturing into a cave without adequate training is virtually suicide.

"Diving in sinks and deep caverns and caves on public land is always a real sensitive thing because you can get killed," Love said.

He was a cave diver himself until he had a close call in a silty spring near Jenkins Creek, the site of what is remembered as Hernando County's most heartbreaking cave-diving incident: 17-year-old Jason Tuskes died there in 1997, and used his last moments of consciousness to scratch a farewell message to his family on his tank.

Of the three cave-diving deaths since then, one was at Eagle's Nest: Brett Potts, 29, of Tallahassee, drowned after apparently blacking out spontaneously in deep water, said Larry Green, an instructor who was with him on the dive in 1990. Potts had been suffering from blackouts, Green said, and had kept his condition secret from his diving partners.

More recently, in April, Guido Gaudenzi of Italy died in a sinkhole under the Sand Hill Scout Reservation on a dive led by Derksen; he accidentally sucked air from a tank full of pure oxygen at 120 feet, a depth at which it is toxic.

"It's dangerous because they go down in those deep holes," said Ron Daniel, Swiftmud's land acquisition manager. He negotiated the purchase of the land, just north of County Road 550, with the current owner, Nancy Mizrahi of Hardee County.

Only Green, who impressed the family as especially qualified, had explicit permission to dive and teach diving at Eagle's Nest, Mizrahi said. But she had put up no signs or gates to prevent others from driving back to the site, she said.

Then, several months ago, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, which manages the property just to the east, built a gate there, blocking the road that leads to Eagle's Nest. This was done both to lock out divers and to prevent dumping on the land, a chronic problem for decades.

"Florida Wildlife Management Area," states a sign posted next to the gate. "Road Closed to Vehicles."

Swiftmud is buying the land to protect sources of groundwater and to add to the corridor of natural land along the Gulf coast, Daniel said.

After the sale is finalized, probably on Aug. 31, Swiftmud will temporarily close the land to the public, he said, and the agency certainly does not want to expose itself to the liability of cave-diving.

The state will then study which activities should be allowed, Daniel said. This is a long process that requires, among other steps, public hearings. Because the Mizrahi property will eventually become part of the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area -- managed by Game and Fish -- that agency probably will write the plan, Daniel said.

Scott Sanders, the commission's assistant bureau chief of wildlife management, said that he does not know whether the policy for the rest of Chassahowitzka addresses diving, and that it is too early to say whether diving will eventually be allowed at Eagle's Nest.

It should be, for several reasons, said Derksen and other divers who plan to fight for the right to dive there, an effort they are just beginning to organize.

Diving has been permitted at several state-owned springs for years. Divers pay taxes, they say, so public land is partly theirs. Most diving instructors also pay for a commercial use permit that gives them the right to teach on state-owned land.

Cave-diving has no negative or lasting impact on the springs or the land above. Most cave-divers accept the danger of their sport and are not the type to sue a property owner, they say. Because of this danger, they are sober and serious before diving. Because alcohol can contribute to decompression sickness, they don't even celebrate with an after-dive drink.

"We don't have parties and leave beer cans," said Tony Davidson, a Spring Hill instructor. "We're the ones who go pick them up."

Certified cave divers, likewise, often police sinkholes to make sure other divers are certified, said Green, who has explored and helped map Eagle's Nest. They resent divers who try to enter with open-water, recreational equipment, partly because their accidents have caused other sinkholes to be closed to qualified divers.

Cave divers must be equipped with multiple lights and air tanks. Descending into Eagle's Nest requires a mixture of helium and compressed air -- the use of which requires a special license -- because of the spot's depth.

The depth and size of Eagle's Nest, though, is one of its main appeals. And this, really, is the main reason divers say it should remain open: It is so spectacularly beautiful.

A chimney leads from the surface to a chamber, called the Main Ballroom, about 200 feet wide and 400 feet long. Water flows in and out of this room through a channel with a total length of more than a mile. The downstream corridor plunges to about 300 feet below the surface and leads to rooms even larger than the Main Ballroom.

Because of the clarity, several divers compared the sensation of swimming through it -- or riding a motorized diving scooter through it -- to moving through space.

This combination of features can be found in very few places anywhere, Green said.

"It's hard to believe a little sinkhole in the woods could be internationally known," he said, "but it is."