TAMPA — Becky Kagan Schott has explored Eagle Nest Sink dozens of times. Her production company made the definitive video on the popular cave-diving site. She speaks with authority in assessing the unassuming Hernando County pond.
“Without proper training, this is a very dangerous place to go,” she said.
Jim Wyatt, a cave-diving instructor for nearly 40 years, concurred.
“This is not a place for novices,” he said.
But Darrin Spivey and his son, Dillon Sanchez, slid into the water on Christmas Day without the advanced training and certification recommended for such a dive. Theirs were not the first bodies to be pulled from Eagle Nest Sink.
At least eight have died there since 1981 in an atmosphere where the senses can betray and panic can be fatal.
Cave divers emphasize that the activity is very safe when its practitioners are highly trained and properly equipped. On its website, the National Speleological Society’s Cave Diving Section boasts that the activity is statistically safer than bowling.
But Brett Hemphill, a Dade City diver who has performed several recoveries from Eagle Nest Sink, said the accessibility of the pond – open to the public on state land – “is a good attraction and a negative one, unfortunately.”
No one checks certification at public sites such as Eagle Nest. There are dire warnings – a sign on the property warns non-certified divers not to dive, and a second underwater sign bears a Grim Reaper and states, “There’s Nothing In This Cave Worth Dying For! Do Not Go Beyond This Point.”
“With the proper training and knowledge, it’s very alluring to go and explore that kind of cave,” said Hemphill. “The downside is that because access isn’t monitored, with the Internet and social networks, anyone can learn all about Eagle Nest. It’s unfortunate when all this happens.”
What appears to be a secluded pond is actually a cone that leads to an enormous cave system, including what Schott calls the “grand ballroom.” At a maximum depth of 300 feet and linear routes that go thousands of feet in several directions, the cave system attracts divers from around the world.
They can be certified by the speleological society or the National Association for Cave Diving. Students learn proper equipment, the importance of building redundancies in equipment and routines, dealing with emergencies and tactics for retracing routes.
Hemphill likened a novice entering Eagle Nest to someone buying a parachute or ice-climbing equipment without the proper training. “Somehow people feel empowered once they’ve purchased the equipment,” he said.
Part of the speleological society’s mission is to educate the public, dive shops and divers about the dangers of cave diving without the proper training. To that end, it has circulated a video entitled “A Deceptively Easy Way to Die.”
For the well-prepared, cave diving is a transcendent challenge.
“Part of the attraction for many is the technical challenge to it,” said Wyatt, who owns a dive shop and was a Navy diving and salvage officer. “You’ve got a lot of specialized equipment, a lot of specialized techniques, and being able to master those and dive in a cave safely is part of the attraction.”
And, of course, “It’s just pretty,” he said. “There’s no red fish and blue fish and green fish like in the ocean, but the geological structures are just beautiful.”
Schott considers diving Eagle Nest a “merit badge” for those in the community.
“A lot of people spend years and years working their way up to be able to dive that cave system. It’s an honor to be able to dive there.”