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November 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Florida Caves Claim Two More

from the November, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Sign at the Debris Cone

Two experienced cave divers from Fort Lauderdale died over the weekend of October 16th while exploring a cave system at the Eagle's Nest dive area in Weeki Wachee, on the west coast of Florida. Together with Justin Blakely, Patrick Peacock and Chris Rittenmeyer entered the water at 2 p.m., but while Blakely remained close to the surface, Peacock and Rittenmeyer, the more experienced divers, went below to explore the caves. When Blakely arrived at a predetermined location at an agreed time, neither Peacock nor Rittenmeyer were there. The alarm was raised, and a rescue team launched an unsuccessful attempt to locate both men. They tried again Monday morning, and Peacock and Rittenmeyer were located in 260 feet (80m) of water in what they described as a complex area of the cave.

Becky Kagan Schott, an experienced cave diver who has dived Eagle's Nest around 20 times, said, "It's an alluring cave, and many divers aspire to dive there someday. It's like dropping down into a whole new world as you swim through giant passageways that have taken tens of thousands of years to form."

120 feet (36m) below the surface, near to an area known as the 'Debris Cone,' is a permanently posted sign with an image of the Grim Reaper along with the stern warning to go no further. There have been ten deaths there since 1981. The area was off-limits to divers from 1999 to 2003, and the fatalities are thought to be the first since a father and son died there in 2013.

The latest deaths, of divers considered experts by Blakely and others, have renewed a decades-old debate over whether Eagle's Nest, proven time and time again to be lethal, should be closed off to the public for good.

"It's like a Venus Fly Trap," Sylvester Muller, vicechairman of the National Speleological Society's Cave Diving section told the Sun-Sentinel. "You get in there and there is so much to see, you get distracted, and it gets deep quickly."

At this time it's unclear what happened to Peacock and Rittenmeyer underwater, or why the two men were unable to resurface.

"They may have lost their line, they may have lost visibility, they may have been restrictive, there may have been gear issues," Matt Vinzant, a local diver with more than 50 dives at Eagle's Nest, told Fox 13. "We don't know at this point, but more than likely it was a series of issues."

Often, people ask why divers do this sort of deep diving in a cave system like this?

The only possible answer is the same that climbers give for attempting Mount Everest -- because it's there.

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