I followed Skiles as we descended to the first cavern. Illuminated, it was revealed to be an eerily beautiful chamber of limestone with all manner of craggy crevices and corners. The water was almost preposterously clear, as if there were no water at all. Jacques Cousteau once said of the stunning clarity of Ginnie Springs: "Visibility forever." But I do not recommend it for anyone even slightly claustrophobic. You are always very aware that you are in a confined space and, but for the lights, would be in almost total darkness.
We went further down into the cave, grabbing a fixed rope line to pull ourselves down. This space was larger and somehow wilder. It felt like we had journeyed to the center of the earth.
The ceiling of the cave was pocked with small holes and divots to which the exhaled air of countless divers adhered. But instead of looking like bubbles, they looked like blobs of mercury. It created a strange but beautiful mosaic.
Skiles pointed to large dark hole deep in a corner and led the way. As I got closer, I could see vertical bars over the passage. I felt a gentle force pushing against me. As I swam closer to the tunnel entrance, that force became stronger. The last couple of yards before reaching the grates, I had to struggle to move each inch. Finally, I grabbed the bars and held on, swaying against the powerful surge of water. Every day, more than 30 million gallons of water flows into Ginnie Springs through this tunnel. Against it, I felt like a flag flapping in a gale force wind. It was exhilarating.
This was the tunnel down which the 28 victims had gone. It is barred now to prevent anyone else from meeting the same fate. Since then, there have been no fatalities.
Having spent about 40 minutes underwater, it was time to surface. At one point, I spun around to take in one last look and became momentarily disoriented. I couldn't figure out where the way out was. For a few long seconds, I didn't see any of the other divers who were with me. Then I found the rope line and grabbed it. I thought about the horrible panic that could grip a confused diver in a cave.
We headed up, leaving behind the gorgeous but forbidding primordial splendor of the caves of Ginnie Springs.