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After Eagle Nest cave diving deaths, don't close natural wonder

Darrin Spivey and his son, Dillon Sanchez, died Christmas Day while diving in the caves of Eagle Nest south of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Hernando County.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Darrin Spivey and his son, Dillon Sanchez, died Christmas Day while diving in the caves of Eagle Nest south of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Hernando County.

I understand the temptation to blame the tragic cave-diving deaths of a teenager and his father on the cave itself — a 300-foot-deep hole in the west Hernando County aquifer called Eagle Nest.

I understand why a family member of Darrin Spivey — the man who led his 15-year-old son on that fatal trip on Christmas Day — has talked about closing Eagle Nest to the public.

And I felt bad that when I called Spivey's father, 63-year-old Chester Spivey Jr., he sounded as though he'd taken a beating just for saying this to another newspaper.

"I voiced my opinion and apparently a lot of people don't agree with me," said the elder Spivey, who declined further comment.

But, respectfully, I have to say that I don't agree with him, either. At least if he means closing Eagle Nest altogether.

Choose your metaphor, as just about everybody I talked to regarding this subject did.

You don't shut down ski slopes when a downhill racer is fatally injured, or boat ramps to the Gulf of Mexico after anglers disappear at sea. We don't ban motorcycles or even require a reasonable precaution, helmets.

That's because people have the right to risk their own lives. If they think the thrill provided by a given activity adds enough to life to be worth potentially shortening it, that's their business.

Also, people should be allowed to explore natural wonders, which Eagle Nest surely is.

I don't know if it really stacks up to — as cave divers like to say — the Grand Canyon or Mount Everest. But I know it's spectacular enough to draw divers from all over the world, that it's a major attraction in a niche tourism market, which is another reason to keep it open.

That, thankfully, appears to be what the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has in mind.

There are no plans to close Eagle Nest, said commission spokesman Gary Morse. And though the agency would discuss this possibility if the public demanded it, the sinkhole was opened after the agency took over the property in 2003 and created a management plan that required considerable public input, he said.

Morse was not able to provide an estimate last week of how many divers use Eagle Nest. But considering its appeal to both out-of-towners and locals, it's obviously a quite a few. With that in mind, the eight deaths recorded there since 1981 make it seem as though the risk of diving at Eagle Nest can be managed responsibly.

That seems especially true because so many of the divers who died failed to be responsible in basic ways.

And none of them failed as clearly as Spivey, who took on this deep, technical dive despite a lack of certification as a cave diver. And he brought along his son, Dillon Sanchez, who had no diving certification at all.

So Sanchez, more so than any other cave diving fatality in my memory, was a victim. And that makes me wonder if the wildlife commission can take some small steps to keep out divers who might put not just themselves, but others, at risk.

A gate with a lock, maybe. A key that is left with authorities and released only to divers who can show proper certification.

But close Eagle Nest entirely? Don't even consider it. Because as Jeff Tobey, the owner of the Scuba West dive shop in Hudson told me, "It's not the cave's fault."

After Eagle Nest cave diving deaths, don't close natural wonder 12/31/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 4:26pm]

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