WEEKI WACHEE — Weeki Wachee Springs is a beautiful place where women in mermaid costumes frolic in the water to entertain tourists. But deeper beneath the surface, there's a cavernous underwater world that can be dangerous.
An experienced, certified cave diver accidentally drowned in that world Saturday while diving with a research team at Weeki Wachee State Park.
Marson Kay, 29, of Gainesville apparently became disoriented during a dive in Weeki Wachee's main spring and got wedged in an underwater cavern, authorities said. He died despite a last-ditch rescue attempt by his fellow divers, who couldn't free him.
Kay was part of a dive team with Karst Underwater Research, a Tampa-based nonprofit company that maps underwater springs for Florida state agencies and water management districts. The group has been exploring Weeki Wachee Springs for years and has discovered that it's the deepest spring in the United States.
"Cave diving was his passion. In the cave diving community, that cave is like Mount Everest," said a friend, Tampa diver Ed Jackson. "It's already a very dangerous sport, and that's the hardest of the hard. At that depth, there's no room for error at all."
The Hernando County Sheriff's Office gave the following account of Saturday's accident:
Kay and five other divers entered the water shortly after 3:30 p.m. and descended into the springs to an underwater cavern. They went about 175 feet down. That cavern contains several tight rock formations at a depth of about 100 feet.
During an ascent to the surface, it appears Kay became disoriented and took a different path back up. He got stuck in a spot where the opening of a rock formation was too small for him to swim through, said Hernando sheriff's Lt. Cinda Moore.
The flow of the spring water may have prevented Kay from freeing himself from the cavern, officials said. Divers explore the spring's lower depths only during drought conditions. That's because rain increases the flow of water until it's too strong for divers to maneuver into the narrow crevices that lead into the spring's deepest parts.
Kay's fellow divers found him and tried to free him, but they were unsuccessful. They ascended to the surface and notified Karst's research director, Brett Hemphill, of the emergency. A rescue team went into the water and reached Kay in two to three minutes.
When they arrived, Kay was lifeless, with his mask on his forehead and his regulator out of his mouth. The rescue divers had to cut Kay's equipment off to free his body from the cave. They surfaced just after 4:45 p.m.
"The guys who were down there with him tried to free him," Moore said. "The rescue divers got there very quickly, but by that point he had already passed away."
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The Karst diving team uses extensive safety precautions, according to a 2009 Times article about the group. Divers affiliated with Karst described how treacherous the Weeki Wachee Springs could be. "It looks peaceful but it can be a very dangerous place," dive safety specialist Walter Pickel said then.
Pickel was the dive safety officer who coordinated rescue efforts for Kay on Saturday.
"Marson was a very experienced cave diver who died tragically," he said. "His death will leave a permanent mark on all that knew him."
Kay's fiancee was at the scene, he said.
Kay was known as an expert diver. In 2010, he was one of a group who volunteered to search for missing diver Ben McDaniel in Vortex Spring near Ponce de Leon in Florida's Panhandle. Despite repeated efforts, McDaniel's body was never found.
Because Kay lived in Gainesville, he was able to dive in nearby cave systems two or three times a week, said his friend, Jackson.
"He progressed really quickly because he had the opportunity to do so much diving," Jackson said. "He's gone much further than I've considered going, with his ability and his nerve — although I didn't consider him reckless by any means."
The Weeki Wachee Springs cave is difficult because of the strong current, Jackson said. "Even when you can get in there, it's like climbing with a fire hose being blown at you."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151.