Cave divers defend sport after deaths at Eagle’s Nest Sink

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Divers exit Blue Grotto Dive resort after a dive

Darrin Spivey, 35, and his son Dillon Sanchez, 15, died while cave diving at Eagle’s Nest Sink in Citrus County on Christmas Day. Since then, questions have been raised about whether to close the dive site and cave diving in general.

The dive equipment found on the father and son showed a dive depth of 233 feet, well below the maximum 60 feet permitted by Spivey’s open-water certification.

Sanchez was not certified.

Chester Spivey Jr., Darrin’s father and Dillon’s grandfather, wrote a letter at the end of December to the state asking the park be closed. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said they have no plans to close the site.

Many cave divers believe it’s a safe sport and dive to experience an alternate reality.

“I go cave diving, believe it or not, to relax,” said Rod O’Connor, who travelled from Tampa to dive at Blue Grotto Dive Resort in Williston. “There’s a misconception that it’s for adrenaline seekers, and that’s not the case.”

Jeff Cary has been on more than 1,000 dives, many of them into Florida’s unexplored underwater caves, with nothing but a dive light, his equipment and sometimes a friend.

“Everybody has had dreams of flying, and that’s what it is,” said Cary, after a dive at Blue Grotto Dive Resort in Williston on a recent Saturday morning. “It’s a chance to let your mind clear and experience your body in a totally different environment,”

International Training Director for the National Association of Cave Divers, Rob Neto, believes all diver deaths are due to faulty equipment or divers going beyond the limits of their certifications.

“With the proper training, it’s an extremely safe sport,” he said.

He said the two men experienced the phenomenon Jacques Cousteau called “the martini effect”.

“Every 50 feet is equivalent to one martini, and they were almost five martinis deep,” he explained. “That’s how debilitated they were.”

About 50 percent of diver deaths happen at less than 50 feet from the water’s surface, according to Diver’s Alert Network Annual Diving Report. Since 1970, reported deaths in the U.S. and Canada have ranged between 40-160 annually.

O’Connor does not believe the dive site should be closed.

“That’s equivalent of somebody going to Dick’s Sporting Goods, buying a pair of skis, taking off down the black diamond of a ski slope and then wanting to shut down the mountain after they smack into a tree,” O’Connor said. “You know, you don’t blame the mountain.”

Divers practice breathing in an open-water class.

Virgil, the resident turtle at Blue Grotto Dive Resort in Williston

Jeff Cary exits a cavern to begin his ascent.

Divers bubble up at Blue Grotto Dive Resort, about to exit the water.

Cave diver Ricardo Neves of Tampa prepares for his descent

Chris Okenfelt and his wife came from Iowa to learn diving.

Kurt Huber, owner of Blue Grotto Dive Resort, with oxygen and nitrox tanks

Paul Mate edited this story online

About Heather van Blokland

Heather is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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