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Drowning shows Eagle Nest Sink underwater caves in Hernando County are dangerous — even to skilled divers

Helge Weber, 43, of Germany prepares to dive Wednesday in the Eagle Nest Sink underwater cave system in Hernando County. 

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Helge Weber, 43, of Germany prepares to dive Wednesday in the Eagle Nest Sink underwater cave system in Hernando County. 

WEEKI WACHEE — A few yards before a wooden ramp descends into Eagle Nest Sink, signs warn those who dare submerge themselves in the world-renowned underwater abyss.

One large, green sign with white letters — all of them capitalized — advises: "CAVE DIVING IN THIS AREA IS EXTREMELY DANGEROUS — EVEN LIFE THREATENING! DO NOT DIVE UNLESS YOU ARE A CERTIFIED CAVE DIVER!!"

Still, longtime friends and diving partners James D. Woodall II and Gregory S. Snowden were not intimidated. And that might have cost Woodall his life.

Woodall, 39, drowned Tuesday afternoon while diving in the underwater caverns of the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area, according to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office. No foul play is suspected.

His body was pulled from the water after midnight by a diver with the St. Petersburg Police Department and the owner of a Citrus County diving shop.

Deputies said Woodall and Snowden, 34, both of Richmond, Ky., came to Florida for the annual Diving Equipment and Marketing Association show in Orlando. But they also made plans to visit Hernando County for some cave diving.

The men were experienced divers but had no cave-diving certification, said Sgt. Donna Black of the Sheriff's Office.

Authorities and diving experts said divers without advanced cave-diving training should not even think of trying Eagle Nest.

"Once you get in there, you find out it's a different beast. It's only for the more experienced divers," said Victor Echaves of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which owns the property.

Indeed, from the shore, Eagle Nest appears to be an ordinary-looking, algae-covered pond. Below, however, is a mile of passages, one of them more than 300 feet deep. The caves are known in diving circles as the "Grand Canyon" for their stunning views, extreme depth and remote location.

The area is several miles from hard roads and difficult to reach without off-road vehicles. The site was closed to divers from 1999 to 2003.

According to the Sheriff's Office, Woodall and Snowden were down about 270 feet and nearly 500 feet inside the caves Tuesday afternoon when Woodall started having problems with his breathing apparatus.

Snowden tried to help but Woodall was in an "altered mental state" and pushed him away, according to a report. By the time Snowden was able to steady himself, Woodall had drowned. Snowden surfaced and called for help at 6:01 p.m.

Back in Kentucky, friends recalled Woodall developing a love for diving in recent years. A onetime paramedic and owner of a sign shop, he threw himself into his new passion.

"I don't think Jim ever did anything a little bit," said Jimmy Cornelison, a friend. "He would tell you that he loved to dive. Period. It was a great pastime for him."

Accompanying Woodall on most of his excursions was Snowden, who worked at Woodall's sign shop in Richmond and was founding member of the Madison County Rescue Squad Dive Team.

"This isn't just something they up and did — this is something they did all the time," Cornelison said. "This was a big deal for them."

Including Woodall, at least six divers have died at Eagle Nest since 1981. The last deaths came in June 2004, when the caves claimed the lives of Craig Simon of Spring Hill and John Robinson Jr. of St. Petersburg. A year later, Judi Bedard nearly died during a dive there.

Regardless, Eagle Nest remains a popular destination for divers around the world.

Wednesday, just hours after investigators reopened the area, a handful of divers were heading into the murky waters. They all had heard of Woodall's death but remained undaunted.

"It's a wonderful, silent place like a lot of cave-diving spots in North Florida," said Helge Weber, 43, a public safety diver back in his home of Friedberg, Germany. "This is one of the best places on Earth for relaxing."

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

Drowning shows Eagle Nest Sink underwater caves in Hernando County are dangerous — even to skilled divers 11/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 5, 2009 12:44pm]
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