HIGH SPRINGS, Fla., Nov. 1, 2009 -- Ginnie Springs is far from Florida's popular tourist attractions, nestled in a beautiful, lush setting among centuries-old cypress trees in the rolling hills of Northern Florida not far from the Georgia border. One of hundreds of natural springs in this area of the state -- they're part of the massive, intricate Florida Aquifer that supplies most of the state's drinking water -- it features some of the most amazing cave and cavern diving in the world.
My guide for my expedition for "Good Morning America Weekend" was Wes Skiles, a legendary underwater photographer and videographer who grew up near High Springs, Fla., the closest town to Ginnie Springs. Skiles first dived the spring four decades ago when he was just a teenager.
In those days, he had to hike through the woods to get to the spring. Today, Ginnie Springs is easily accessible by car. It's located on private property, and there's a supply store where you can rent dividing gear and pay for the permit.
At first sight, it doesn't look like much, just a pretty pond with crystalline waters opening onto the darker-hued Santa Fe River. Three ladders descend to the shallow spring. It's only about three feet deep. But peering into the middle, you can see the darker shape of a gaping hole. It's what is down that hole that attracts scuba divers from around the world: two "rooms" carved by the subterranean flow of water for millions of years.
"This is the last unexplored frontier on earth," Skiles says of the allure of cave diving. "Only human beings can penetrate underwater to these virgin places where no light has ever shined, and you're in a place no one has ever been in, completely unexplored."
Amazing Adventure Is 'Excruciatingly Dangerous'
The hard, sometimes tragic truth is that cave diving is dangerous.
"It is excruciatingly dangerous," Skiles says. "I've lost 28 friends."
He is referring to the 28 divers who have died in Ginnie Springs over the years. They perished because they all made the same mistake: They got lost deep within the system of tunnels that radiate from the spring and ran out of air.
"Accident statistics suggest that, overwhelmingly, divers perish in underwater caverns and caves for just three reasons: lack of a properly used guideline; lack of sufficient reserve gas; and/or, diving beyond the safe operational limits of the breathing media used," according to the Ginnie Springs Outdoors Web site.
"Why do divers make these mistakes? Nine out of 10 divers who die in natural overhead environments lack any formal training in cavern or cave diving."
By the way, the difference between a cave and cavern dive is that the latter is a dive where you always have the entrance within eyesight. A cave penetrates deep and far enough that you can no longer see that entrance.
Sobered by these facts, I took the plunge with Skiles and his three-person crew of associates who brought lights so we could videotape underwater. The water was a bracing 72 degrees Fahrenheit, chilly enough that we had to wear 4-millimeter-thick wetsuits and a protective hood.
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.
Splendors and Dangers in Underwater Caves
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.