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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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May 1999 Vol. 14, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Really Diving Into Florida

from the May, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

No one wants to be in school all the time, so I also visited six North Florida caverns as part of my trip. All are known for their super visibility (up to 200 feet) and constant 72° water temperature regardless of depth. Each was open to sport divers, and only one required cavern certification to take lights down. Two that didn’t require lights and stood out from all the rest were:

Paradise Springs. I figured I was going to like this place when I read the directions in a guidebook: “Fifty feet before SR 441 splits, look for a black mailbox with a diver’s flag and take the dirt road to the right 2 mi.” Sandwiched between picturesque cattle and horse pastures, the dive center is part of the Chapelka family’s house, and the operation is run by Curt and his 70-year-old diver dad, “Fudd,” who’s as cordial and homespun as they come.

The spring itself is just a few feet from the house and accessible from a sandy grass yard studded with picnic tables, a gazebo, and an outdoor rinse shower. Other amenities include a bathhouse and air station. My buddy and I suited up on the lawn and walked down a flight of stairs into a leafy grotto with a crystalline pool about 30' in diameter that was set amid native trees and ferns. The stairs continued underwater to a platform where we finished donning and adjusting our gear, then swam down a buoy line to a marker and veered off around a cone of debris from previous caveins to a straight tunnel that slopes gently down to 100 feet. A stationary line guided the way, and the limit for open water divers was clearly marked. Cave divers can take a tunnel down another 40 feet, but we enjoyed turning around at this point for a spectacular view of the dark chasm leading back up to the sunlit surface of the pool.

On the return leg we took Fudd’s advice, poking our heads into a couple of small side rooms and circling the debris cone to search for sand dollar and sea biscuit fossils. Resident catfish often accompanied us in the shallower waters. Although we couldn’t find it, there’s a fossilized 5-foot rib bone from some as-yet-undetermined prehistoric creature imbedded in the limestone wall. It was high season, but we still had the cavern to ourselves for most of our Tuesday afternoon dive. When another dive team entered the water, we just stayed on the far side of the debris cone, watching the eerie play of their lights as they descended into the tunnel.

Devil’s Den. Affable Manager Ginnie McNight greeted us at the dive center and suggested we hang out for a few minutes since a pair of divers were reportedly kicking up silt in the spring. While we filled out paperwork and rented tanks, she explained that Devil’s Den is Florida’s only underground spring cavern dive. The landscaped grounds were dotted with covered picnic tables and barbecue grills. Devil’s Den also features volleyball, horseback riding, a swimming pool, hot showers, and a fountain set amid a one-acre clearwater pond up to 20 feet in depth that’s used for open-water training classes. If you’re looking for a place to stay, there’s camping, rental cabins, RV hookups, a bunkhouse, and a few snacks and soft drinks. But the most impressive feature by far is the underground spring itself. A narrow rock tunnel with wooden steps leads down to a grotto 60’ below ground. Vines hang down from a 40’ circular opening in the earth, and sunlight streams into the grotto and filters through gnarly mossback oaks.

At the bottom of the stairs is a large bowl nearly 100’ across that’s stocked with catfish, brim, and koi. Since there’s no natural vegetation in the spring, the fish are all hand-fed by divers, so they’re incredibly tame. Dipping below the surface, we encountered a debris cone so massive it looked more like a rock slide. Catfish tailed us, looking like small nurse sharks. We descended to the maximum depth of 55 feet, eyeing a series of lower and narrower caves that are offlimits to divers. They had the spooky aspect of funhouse dioramas; I kept expecting ghouls to leap out, rattling chains.

On our way up we made four progressively shallower circumnavigations of the debris cone. The different nooks and crannies looked different from various perspectives, and the walls dotted with small holes and interconnected tubes, some with small stalagmite and stalactite-like formations, made me feel like a mouse in a Swiss cheese fantasy. There was more variety here than anyplace else I saw in Florida. I logged a little over an hour on this fascinating dive and still finished with over 1,000 lbs. in my 80 c.f. tank.

— D. L.

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