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


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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  1. And the way this reads, O’Connor goes cave diving alone, the text says “sometimes with a friend.” I am a certified advanced diver and even the most rudimentary diver knows about the buddy-system in which no diver is supposed to dive without a buddy at any time. I do not think this spring should be closed, but obviously it needs better signage to advise divers of the dangers and that it is for experienced divers only.

    • Sir – as a certified diver, both you and Mr. Spivey are well aware of the dangers of diving in general, and cave diving specifically. Any diver would understand what certification is all about: you will die without it. It’s about education. The certificate proves that you know how to dive and understand the dangers of diving. Mr. Spivey ignored his education and endangered his son’s life. If they had survived, an argument could be made to jail Mr. Spivey for endangering his child’s life. Unfortunately, the adult guardian and educated individual in this case did not use his sense to make the right choice and probably lost his life trying to save his son’s life.

      The sign is clear. I must disagree with you wholeheartedly. The sign is clear and the education afforded Mr. Spivey taught him that diving is dangerous, that his son needs to be certified, and that cave diving is an advanced technical type of dive. The blame is on Mr. Spivey alone.

      This is a tradegy, but avoidable… and the responsible party is also one of the victims.

      • You are absolutely correct, but perhaps a bigger sign or more signs would avoid future deaths.

        • No, there are enough signs. How many do you think someone needs to read, all of them posted here are BIG and they say PREVENT YOUR DEATH, GO NO FARTHER OR YOU WILL DIE. Some people will ignore one or 100 signs. It’s not the caves fault, its the humans that make poor decisions.

    • TheDosemasterGeneral

      Cave diving is technical diving and a buddy system is not really considered necessary. The buddy system is mainly to counter equipment failures, but cave divers carry 2-3 redundant systems.

  2. The buddy rule is for recreational diving. Cave diving is considered technical diving and the rules are a lot different when technical diving. The buddy system is so that you have a backup if something goes wrong with your equipment, such and total loss of gas. In technical diving, you dive with redundant equipment. No good cave diver would ever enter a system with less than one backup for all their critical equipment. You dive with 2 tanks (at least), 2 first and second stages, 3 lights, etc. There is a debate in the technical community about whether you should dive solo, but it is usually more of a personal choice and a comfort choice than a safety one.

    Regarding this tragedy, the black diamond ski analogy is a good one. Eagles Nest is somewhat like the Mt. Everest of cave diving and there are warning signs telling you to go no further unless you have appropriate training. Only very experienced cave divers should ever enter that system. Those two divers should have known better and have no one else to blame but themselves.

  3. Blue Grotto is a poor example to choose for your story. It’s not a cave, its a cavern that anyone can go dive. This is nothing compared to Eagles Nest. PLEASE SEEK OUT PROPER CAVE DIVING TRAINING IF YOU WISH TO ENTER AN OVERHEAD ENVIRONMENT. PEOPLE DIE that’s whey there is extensive training to go through. The NSS-CDS and NACD teach these courses.

    • My understanding is that the journalist was invited to Blue Grotto by a cave instructor.

      I agree that Blue Grotto in NO WAY prepares one for the Nest.

  4. This dive site is literately 3 miles from the ocean… if these two just wanted to try out their new Christmas gifts, they should have gone to coast. There is absolutely no excuse for this incident (I refuse to call it an accident).

    I want to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume were planning to stay in the shallow rim of sinkhole… but my understanding is that their bodies were recovered within the cave system. WHY??

    I mean no offense to the surviving family/ friends, but this guy is the definition of a “muppet.”

  5. I dove eagles nest one month prior to the deaths on Christmas day and it had the worst visibility I have ever seen there.less than 10 feet.I can imagine those two were swimming along the floor of the cave in direct contact with the guide line kicking up all the silt behind them.When they turned the dive at 233 feet narcosis was severe and they were faced with silt out conditions.With no training to guide them they easily became separated from each other and the guide line. I’m sure their anxiety and breathing rate went through the roof and their drowning came quickly.

  6. Arshin Carnifex

    1) Open-water diver who ignored TWO giant signs, one on the surface and one underwater at the entrance (with a giant Grim Reaper on it) saying “DO NOT DIVE HERE IF YOU ARE NOT A CERTIFIED CAVE DIVER, YOU WILL DIE”.

    2) Dove common surface air (suitable ONLY for sub-40m depths) on one of the deepest, most complex caves in the Western Hemisphere, ignoring THE MOST BASIC PHYSICAL RULES OF SCUBA DIVING AS IF THEY DID NOT EXIST.

    This disgusting idiot of a human being murdered his own son and himself in one fell swoop. I have zero sympathy for anybody except the boy and the dedicated volunteers who pulled their corpses out of the cave. Blaming the cave in this case is equivalent to blaming the grille of the 18-wheeler when you throw yourself in front of it on the highway.

    I have seen some dive fatalities where equipment was partially to blame. I have seen some dive fatalities where conditions were partly to blame. But for Darrin Spivey to take his 15 year old son into that hole without a cave diver cert or even so much as the GAS NECESSARY NOT TO DIE AFTER 40m is murder. I’m sorry. It cannot be called otherwise.

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