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Cave divers explore deepest parts of Weeki Wachee Springs

Brett Hemphill, a cave diver with Karst Underwater Research of Tampa, begins his descent to explore the Weeki Wachee Springs cave system Saturday.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Brett Hemphill, a cave diver with Karst Underwater Research of Tampa, begins his descent to explore the Weeki Wachee Springs cave system Saturday.

WEEKI WACHEE — Picking up where he left off two years ago, Brett Hemphill pushed even deeper and deeper into the underwater abyss Saturday. Already, no one has ever made it any farther into a spring than Hemphill and his diving team.

Yet the work in — and underneath — Weeki Wachee Springs is only beginning.

"Everything went pretty well out there," Hemphill said Sunday. "But we had to tone things down a bit. We're going to try to get back into the deep section."

Of course, deep is relative.

In August 2007, Hemphill and 19 other divers were able to confirm that Weeki Wachee Springs, home of the world-famous mermaids, was indeed the deepest in the United States. They made it 407 feet into the springs.

On Saturday, Hemphill and a team of divers from his Tampa nonprofit company, Karst Underwater Research, returned to the spring to continue their exploration of the underwater cave system. As with the previous dives, drought conditions once again made it possible for divers to access the narrow crevices leading to the deepest parts into the spring.

"It would be practically impossible to do any other time," said Hemphill, 42, who led the 2007 dive more than 4,600 feet into the cave system.

This time, the objective was to explore and map an area about a mile to the southwest of the attraction, near a Southwest Florida Water Management District water sampling well at U.S. 19 and Northcliffe Boulevard.

'Very dangerous place'

Early Saturday, a team of divers helped set up extra air tanks and equipment in shallower areas of the spring for Hemphill to use to survey and map the cave system — all part of the extensive safety precautions to prepare for a dive.

"It looks peaceful but it can be a very dangerous place," said Walter Pickel, a dive safety specialist who helped prepare Hemphill.

Wearing a "dry" suit equipped with a heated vest to protect his torso from the prolonged effects of the 72-degree water, Hemphill entered the spring at 10:35 a.m. Saturday. Once inside, a torpedo-shaped water scooter allowed him to glide through the water.

Hemphill said he went almost 5,000 feet into the cave system — nearly 400 feet longer than the last dive. Along the way, Hemphill was able to recover samples of environmentally safe ruby red dye that park officials had previously released into the springs.

"They told me to keep an eye out for it," Hemphill said. "And lo and behold, I saw a milky layer of this beautiful ruby red color."

The dive ended about 8:40 p.m. Hemphill said he cut this dive a little short because he went alone, owing to a regular diving partner who fell ill before the exploration.

Researchers think the Weeki Wachee caves are connected to another system known as Twin Dees Spring, about a half mile from the attraction. Divers have previously tracked more than 2,000 feet of passages at about 300 feet deep in some places.

As with the 2007 dive, Karst had to obtain a special permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and get consent from the attraction's management in order to enter the spring.

Hemphill said he will return to Weeki Wachee Springs on Saturday, hoping to take advantage of the dry conditions before summer rains increase the flow in the spring making it unsafe for further dives.

"It's a huge sacrifice of time and until we're finished, it is not fun," Hemphill said. "But once we're finished, we'll have that sense of accomplishment. That's is what we're waiting for."

Logan O'Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1435. Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

Cave divers explore deepest parts of Weeki Wachee Springs 04/19/09 [Last modified: Sunday, April 19, 2009 8:03pm]

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