Thursday, November 23, 2017
Public safety

After divers die, state plans no changes in cave access

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The treacherous, isolated cave system where a Brooksville man and his teenage son drowned Wednesday has claimed at least six other lives since 1981. But Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials said they have no plans to restrict access to Eagle Nest Sink.

"Generally, the public wanted it open with some restrictions," spokesman Gary Morse said.

Darrin Spivey, 35, and his son, Dillon Sanchez, 15, descended on Christmas Day; their bodies were pulled out by rescue crews that night. Neither had cave diving certification, and the teenager had no diving certification at all.

Now part of the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area and located a few miles north of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Eagle Nest Sink was closed in 1999 after the Southwest Florida Water Management purchased the land and worked to establish a plan for access, which had essentially been unrestricted since the spot was discovered in the 1960s.

When the area passed to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2003, local diver Larry Green was among those who pushed for it to be reopened.

"Being able to go where nobody else has gone before is a draw that few places still have," said Green, a dive instructor and shop owner who has mapped and trained in the cave since the early 1980s.

The caves are a geological wonder, said Green, who is 64 and now lives in High Springs. Hernando County's are world renowned for their depth, providing a window into an underground system not easily accessed from the surface.

Yet while Green wanted the caves to be accessible, he and other members of the diving community recommended the Wildlife Commission regulate the people who dive there. He pointed to nearby Sand Hill Scout Reservation, a privately owned Hernando County location that requires two separate permits and 100 hours of cave diving experience before allowing divers access to its underwater system.

When the commission took over, it installed large signs warning of the danger. It also built a pier to make it easier to access.

"There's very little to no supervision over it to check that people with certification came out there," Green said.

To dive there, you only have to drop $3 per person in a locked box at the entrance to the wildlife management area, Morse said. As is the case with hunting, the commission doesn't regulate divers' permits. That falls to the diving community, Morse said.

Certifications differ by dive type, but conditions in the open ocean are wildly different from those in the caves, Green said.

"You're going to have this happen when you've got a site out in the middle of the woods," Green said. "I hate to see anything happen to it, but it's hard to do something with stupidity."

Claire Wiseman can be reached at [email protected] or (727)-893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman on Twitter.

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