At a time when divers thought they had run out of new caves to discover, Brett Hemphill proved them wrong.
He spent his early career searching small springs and tidal vents across central Florida, discovering several new caves. He eventually set up shop in Dade City, where he was president of a nonprofit committed to preserving the state’s aquifers. In his more than 25 years as a cave explorer, Hemphill’s team broke record after record.
In 2008, the team set the United States deep underwater cave record at Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando County. And in 2013, his team broke it again at a cave called Phantom Springs in Texas; they traversed more than 465 feet deep and almost 8,000 feet back in the cave.
On Friday, Hemphill was feared dead after he didn’t surface from a dive at that same Texas cave.
A team of rescue divers entered the water at Phantom Springs early Friday morning and were trying to locate Hemphill’s body, according to C.W. Stephens, a deputy at the Jeff Davis County Sheriff’s Office in Texas. Stephens received a 911 call at 1 a.m. Thursday from divers who estimate Hemphill was 2 miles into the cave at roughly 480 feet deep.
Earlier on Wednesday, Stephens was told, Hemphill was estimated at a depth of 570 feet. The total journey that far into Phantom Springs can take 14 hours, he said. If that depth were confirmed, it would beat the current U.S. underwater cave record in Missouri by nearly 100 feet — a landslide margin in the diving world.
“He was quite a ways back in there,” Stephens said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s supposedly quite technical diving in there. Once they locate (the body), if they do, there’s a lot of passages and current going all kinds of ways down there.”
Because no body has been recovered yet, deputies are treating the incident as a missing persons case, but deputies are “more likely looking at a recovery” and not a rescue, Stephens said. He expects the operation could string out over several days.
Meanwhile, the incident has sent shock waves around the tight-knit cave diving community.
“This is reverberating all around the cave diving world. Brett was known as one of the best,” said Mark Long, a renowned cave diving explorer and photographer who knew Hemphill for more than two decades.
In the world of cave diving, explorers will lay down a lead line in an unexplored cave so future divers can find their way.
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When a diver reaches their limit, whether because they need to turn around or because the cave becomes impassable, they tie the line off.
Beyond where those lines end is all unexplored cave, Long said.
“I had lots of places that I had stopped exploring, and then Brett calls up one day and asks about a line and says he added 2,000 feet of line to it,” Long said. “That’s what will always stick with me: He was a passionate explorer.”
Hemphill was instrumental in bridging the gap between scientists and daring divers, Long said. In the past, divers wouldn’t be focused on the ecological changes happening around them in these untouched slices of earth. The scientists who were interested in that lacked the ability or training to explore the caves. But Hemphill worked to bring those two worlds together.
One of the ways he did that was as president of Karst Underwater Research, a Dade City-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving and protecting underwater aquifer systems through research and documentation.
Hemphill was also known by those around him for his easygoing demeanor and sense of humor during difficult dives, said Tom Iliffe, a marine biology professor at Texas A&M and Hemphill’s longtime colleague.
Iliffe said the disappearance came as a shock.
“This wasn’t some yahoo going out,” he said. “Of anybody that you might think got into a diving accident, he would probably be the last person that would ever come to my mind.”
The two first met while working together at Phantom Springs Cave in 2012. Their dive was cut short when Hemphill and another diver realized they lacked enough helium to delve any deeper, Iliffe said.
When Hemphill and his exploration team returned the next year, they broke the record for deepest underwater dive.
Phantom Springs Cave is known to be challenging to dive. Until recently, the cave had been a federally owned biological preserve, home to a fragile ecosystem that supports the endangered pupfish living in the spring system’s pools. A research permit had been required by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for anyone wanting to plunge into its depths.
About two years ago, the federal government handed Phantom Springs Cave over to a Texas ranch that surrounds the property. Ever since the cave changed owners, Hemphill had been trying to make his way back there, Iliffe said.
When the two last spoke a couple months ago, Hemphill had gotten permission from the ranch owners and was “very excited” to dive there again, Iliffe said
Iliffe said Hemphill was one of the most experienced divers in the world.
“But that doesn’t guarantee safety. That doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be things that go wrong,” he said. “Bad things happen to good people sometimes.”
“They did things knowing what they were getting into,” Iliffe added. “But they’re pushing the limits deeper than anybody had ever been in an underwater cave in this country.”
Hemphill is credited with designing a unique dive harness — dubbed the Armadillo — that allows divers to navigate tight passages, thick jungles and dry cave sections.
He was respected by others in the dive community for exploring, mapping and filming many of the deepest underwater cave systems found across the world. Hemphill spent time exploring and researching waters along the Florida coast, Missouri, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and the Yucatan Peninsula.
Becky Kagan Schott, an Emmy-winning underwater filmmaker, wrote on social media she was “heartbroken” by the news of Hemphill’s disappearance.
“Today the dive community has lost yet another great cave explorer and friend. I’m in shock,” she wrote. Writing directly to Hemphill, she wrote, “I loved hearing the excitement in your voice when you talked about caves. Your enthusiasm never failed and it always felt new and exciting. You were a true explorer and a true friend.”
Julie Komenda, an environmental artist, said several of her paintings are based on footage from Hemphill’s dives. And for places that he explored but didn’t photograph, he would often describe the uncharted depths to her so she could bring the aquifer to life through her artwork.
“He would just explode with these amazing comments about the color, and the texture of the rocks and these giant open spaces where you’re just floating,” Komenda said. “It was just breathtaking the way he’d explain it to me.”
Komenda isn’t a diver, but she said she felt like she was exploring vicariously through him.
“That’s what he was known for: He brought everyone along with him.”