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Just south of Tallahassee, Florida, USA,
scores of portals reveal a hidden underworld known as the Woodville Karst
Plain. The plain stretches over 1,166 square kilometres from
Wakulla County covers the longest underwater cave system in the United States, and the fourth longest in the world. The underground river winds 19 miles through narrow and wide caves, including a huge room called the Black Abyss that is large enough to hold a small skyscraper. More than 100 million gallons of water flow through it each day. This is comparable to the Grand Canyon as a tremendous natural resource. The only problem is that no one on the surface can see it.
Florida recently purchased land in Wakulla County. The purchase protects 13 of 27 mapped sinkholes — places where the underground water briefly surfaces. Nine other sinkholes in the system are already protected on federal land. The purchase contributes to efforts that would connect the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, the Wakulla Springs State Park and the Apalachicola National Forest. The linkage of these conservation areas will not only protect water resources, but provide a wildlife corridor for a wide range of species.
The Wakulla system is well known to locals and divers worldwide. It has drawn underwater adventurers since the 1950s when a few bold but foolish college students timidly penetrated its mammoth vent. Many still regard Wakulla as the world’s ultimate cave dive. Volunteer divers, as part of the Woodville Karst Plain Project, explore and map the variety of depths in the region’s porous limestone, deep fissures and sinkholes. The depths range from 30 to 200 feet, where divers use a special trimix of oxygen, helium and nitrogen. Decompression time in the water can go up to 15 hours. The underwater current is so strong in some places that even divers being pulled through the water by cylindrical scooters must move off to the side and out of the current to make any headway.
Serious cave exploration in this region, though, moved at a tortoise’s pace until a man named Parker Turner came into the area in the late 1980s. Turner soon formed the Woodville Karst Plain Project (WKPP), knowing that the area south of Florida’s capital city held miles of uncharted caves, to probe and map these tunnels. A large part of Turner’s mission was to ensure that the public and government officials were informed of the team’s findings.
Tragically, Parker Turner died on 17 November, 1991. An underwater avalanche of silt tumbled to the bottom of the steep-sided cavern, which leads to the cave entrance of Indian Spring. This landslide buried the permanent line running through the cave and reduced visibility to zero. Although his dive buddy Bill Gavin was able to escape, Parker fell a few feet short of reaching a safety bottle inside the cavern. Still, his death could not be attributed to diver error. Two other WKPP divers, Bill McFaden (1987) and Sherwood Schile (1993) also died while probing these lightless corridors.
One reason that divers stay involved with the
project, though, is to ensure that Turner’s legacy lives on. He was a person
of great vision who would not accept “can’t do” as an answer. From Turner’s
death until 1993, Bill Gavin (a U.S. Navy Engineer) ran the project. After
Schile died of unknown causes on a dive in 1993, Gavin quit diving and
passed the reins to George Irvine, who continues to lead the WKPP.
Since Irvine took over, the team has grown to about 100 or so dedicated volunteers with diverse backgrounds and multiple talents. WKPP explorers now routinely stage cylinders filled with breathing gases as well as super scooters at multiple locations throughout caves. Sometimes they decompress for more than 15 hours in the 20 degree C waters. The divers also employ highly streamlined equipment configurations. This allows them to move through the water with the ease of dolphins. Team members also must stay mentally sharp and physically fit, eschewing tobacco and other drugs and maintaining a low-fat diet. WKPP divers also use only the best gear available. If no such gear exists, the team makes its own. For example, the super scooters designed by the team can withstand depths of 90 to 120 metres and pull them through the water more than three times faster than they can swim.
Using gear designed for extreme cave diving, the dedicated WKPP team reaches ever farther and deeper into north Florida’s labyrinths. Underwater cavities in the Karst Plain range in size from a gallery large enough to hold Westminster Abbey to tiny fissures that only minuscule creatures can slip through. The WKPP has linked 27 Karst windows (surface openings of caves) like beads on a string. This necklace of liquid gems currently stretches more than 30 kilometres. Turner dubbed this maze the Leon Sinks Cave System. It currently ranks as the fourth longest underwater cave in the world. Beyond that, the end of the line in Leon Sinks rests tantalizingly close to Wakulla Springs. As of November 2002, WKPP divers have mapped more than 16 kilometres of passages in Wakulla’s 12 conduits at depths averaging just under 90 metres. The ultimate goal of the team is to explore and join Leon Sinks Cave, Wakulla Springs and other nearby springs and dolines.
Working frantically, the WKPP continues to gather data for scientists and government officials. Planners used some of the group’s data to help prevent a misguided developer from placing an underground petrol tank in an area underlain with porous limestone just north of Wakulla. Studies have shown that one litre of gasoline can pollute 10,000 litres of groundwater. A leak into the aquifer would be catastrophic to the region’s economy, not to mention wreaking havoc on its sensitive ecosystems. Perhaps WKPP divers will soon pinpoint the main sources of pollutants entering these massive conduits. If the WKPP team succeeds, Wakulla Springs’ crystalline blue waters, which have been attracting visitors for more than 10,000 years, may be restored.
In any event, WKPP divers have laid the end of the line in just about every major cave in Florida. The team continues to set the standard for the world’s most demanding cave diving. Although focusing on caves in Florida’s Big Bend, WKPP members have explored cave systems in Mexico, the Bahamas, Brazil, Turkey and the wreck of the Britannic off the coast of Greece. The team also is the first group of cave divers to use trimix regularly and to employ experimental decompression tables.
Irvine, who has spent a fortune — not only of his own money, but in time devoted to directing the project, likens it to “herding cats”. “I got on board to see what was around the next corner, and stayed on board to finish the job because nobody else is better equipped in every sense to do this than me. Parker Turner said: ‘We do this because they will not let us be astronauts,’ I do it because it is better than being an astronaut. At least we can get to the moon every time we fly,” says Irvine. While this may sound opinionated and egotistical, the controversial and envied Irvine always backs up his words with his deeds. For example, since Irvine took control of the WKPP about 10 years ago, no deaths or serious accidents have occurred, even after thousands of challenging dives.
Michael Wisenbaker is a member of the Woodville Karst Plain Project (WKPP), a volunteer dive team that has been mapping the system for more than 15 years. For more information on this team, please check out these web sites: http://www.wkpp.org or http://www.gue.com.