A Grim Reaper sign at Ginnie Springs.

LIKE A PAN OF GENTLY SIMMERING WATER, the strong upwelling current left a pronounced rippling effect on the clear, glass-like surface while, 6-8m below, the sand-floored basin shimmered in the dappled rays of the sun.
Small fish darted to and fro, while all we could hear were a few chattering crows amid the bare trees overhead.
We were floating blissfully over an expanse of crystal aquamarine water. One edge of our waterway was a mass of vibrant green plant growth, while away to the left the clear flow from the giant springs merged imperceptibly with the heavily discoloured flow of the sluggish Santa Fe river.
This was winter in the Sunshine State. The air temperature was now in the low 20s, the water was beautifully warm - to a Brit who had left a sub-zero UK, the setting was tropical paradise.
We were at Ginnie Springs, the western worlds recreational cave-diving Mecca. I hadnt been here for six years but it might have been yesterday.
We had already dived two of Floridas other old favourites, Peacock Springs and Little River Springs. There must surely have been some changes over the years, and I hoped to uncover them.

THE LATEST EDITION OF NED DELOACHS GUIDE BOOK makes clear that cave activities here are no longer shrouded in secrecy. Maps, descriptions and information are presented to help the aspiring visitor to take those first important steps into the darkness quickly. The subterranean waterways are less exclusive than they once were, though activities are still managed most effectively.
This control of cave-diving is apparent everywhere and at all levels.
I guess Im a bit of a renegade in such matters. In Europe we can do just about anything, but in Florida it seems there are few who reject these regulations. Clearly they are seen as a necessity.
The concerns are basic safety and the environment. From the 1970s Peacock, today an official state park, was proclaimed far and wide, so attracted increasing numbers of visitors.
Along with record-breaking achievements there were many deaths, mainly attributable to lack of specific cave-diving training.
This led to the development of the first structured educational training programmes, and literature such as Basic Cave Diving - A Blueprint For Survival, by the late Sheck Exley.
Today Peacock Springs is a major training venue, and safeguards are in place. From the moment one drives through the park gate certain rules are impressed on the visitor: no solo diving; C-cards to be displayed; stay within your certification level; no lights for open-water divers; no tampering with route markings; dives completed by 5pm; no fishing, 4x4s or DPVs and so on.
Environmental controls are interwoven with safety precautions. As the rough track meanders through the woods, strangers might assume they had taken a wrong turn, leading to some embarrassing dead end. But you reach
a turning area where a dozen vehicles are parked, with small groups of people quietly assembling their gear.
Oak and cypress overhang secluded pools, while a trail of boardwalks and carpeted, non-slip steps facilitate both easy access to the springs and prevent bank erosion. Chemical toilets are provided in parking areas to further protect the environment.
Park management is exemplary; it is clean, quiet and, above water, is just as it was when the first lucky cave-explorers chanced on it. Under water the 8000m-plus of tunnels at Peacock offer exceptional diving to those of all abilities. Parts of the intricate, extensive cave network remain unchanged, while other sections have been sacrificed to the needs of training - a wonderful example of a pragmatic conservational approach to a sensitive site.

EVEN AT SUCH POPULAR PLACES there can be a surprise or two. When my friend Helen dived here in 2000, she was heading in at over 8m depth when a large bird sped past her, heading down into the darkness!
She prepared her camera and managed to snatch a rare shot of a cave-diving cormorant a minute or so later!
We cruise gently down into the large tunnel complex. The line is so well installed that I feel relaxed from the off. There is no mighty current here trying to cast you back out, and we set off past the Stop sign at a steady 15m.
Because it is so clear and the tunnel is more than 3-4m in diameter, we can fly high above the line.
I follow as Helen probes the darkness with her powerful HID light. The tunnels are wonderfully sculpted. Native cave-adapted catfish slouch around on the floor and we see a couple of small white troglobitic crawfish way back in the cave.
This is a fantastic place for any diver, and at weekends dozens will be present at any one time. In the week its quieter, but the site is still patrolled regularly by park rangers, the local sheriff and others.
Less than half an hours drive away lies Little River Springs, another extremely popular site, and again one where many fatalities have occurred.
State park authorities have conducted some major landscaping in recent years, and boardwalks and concrete paths surround the place.
This is another spectacular cave site, with superb circular tunnels and an exceptionally strong outflow. The cave drops rapidly to depths in the 30m range, so it quickly takes the visitor into the realms of decompression.
The number of visitors may prove daunting, given that the cave mouth is not spacious, and the shallow environs for deco may be more than a little overcrowded with people and dive lines.
At one time on the day we turned up eight separate lines trailed into the entrance cavern zone. We waited until the afternoon to take our turn, sharing the crystal waters with an elderly couple happily intent on gaining some experience exploring the entrance area.

BUT THE MOST POPULAR SITE is surely Ginnie Springs, one of the worlds finest inland dive resorts. Frequented by open-water dive trainees and cavern divers, its the ideal venue for just about anyone keen to gain an insight to the mysterious world of the cave-diver.
The essence of its rural setting has been conserved, yet all the diver amenities one could wish for are provided. Road and water access is excellent and vehicles are kept at a comfortable, yet discreet, distance from the dive sites.
There are changing rooms, picnic tables and benches, and within a couple of minutes drive an all-encompassing dive store and cafeteria. Carpeted steps provide easy, convenient access to the bath-temperature water, where you can take all the time you need to fine-tune that dive plan.
December and January are the quietest months to visit, though the weather may be variable, and April to September are the busiest months, with many campers and swimmers around.
Ginnie Springs itself, where the maximum depth is only 16m, discharges a strong flow of pure water (133 million litres a day) from a comfortable-sized opening. As you fin into the flow from the shallow bowl of the entrance, you get a real feeling of privilege.
The opening belies what is soon apparent, that the rock is creamy-white, and there is next to no silt. Today no one worries about divers venturing into this benign short cave, because an impregnable grate has been installed at the limit to prevent further penetration.
Sadly, beyond the grate any number of untrained divers perished in the early years. The current blasts into your face, and you marvel for a few last moments before being swept gracefully back to the light.
More serious is the Devils Eye/Devils Ear cave complex, just a short walk away. This system discharges one of the strongest outflows of any cave anywhere in the world. Well over 190 million litres a day surge up the two entrance shafts - the Eye and Ear respectively.
Devils Eye descends a fine circular shaft, and at the limit of daylight a STOP sign serves to remind inexperienced divers of the hazardous nature of the cave environment.
Training agencies have installed these Grim Reaper signs at most popular dive venues in Florida, because too often in the past divers ventured just a little bit further to become disorientated beyond the daylight.
In a severe silt-out, for example, a light can count for very little. Despite the presence of a current, an eddy or two in the flow can play cruel tricks on a divers sense of direction.
Apart from lack of specific training, analysis of the hundreds of diver deaths in Floridas caves shows that the most common factor by far relates to either failing to lay a dive line or experiencing associated line problems.
Beyond the STOP sign, the cave passage descends somewhat constricted and steeply. I feel a sense of awe now, as any forward progress is a struggle. There is a force of water that one would never imagine from dry land.
Beneath the low ceiling, the pulling and scrabbling from rock to rock begins. One hell of a current!
Suddenly I break out into a large horizontal tunnel at 25m depth. This is where the Eye converges with the shaft leading down from the Devils Ear, but there is no respite from the current, despite the larger passage.

WATER CLARITY IS INCREDIBLE, but so too is the effort needed to progress upstream! A trail of distinct scratch marks on the wall indicates the route previous visitors have taken as they pull and glide from one rocky recess to the next. People describe this section as a battle, and breathing rates are very high over the next 100m.
The going remains stressful until at last passage dimensions increase and the current disperses. Following the permanent 3mm goldline, you quietly get the feel of this labyrinth of more than 8000m of magnificent, interconnecting tunnels, which lead back into the sponge-like Ocala limestone.
And when you turn the dive, its such a relaxing swim back to the surface.
Cavern- and cave-diving has matured as an activity in Florida. New facilities cater for every need, with whole communities of like-minded individuals gathering at places such as Dive Outpost, Luraville (five minutes drive from Peacock). Accommodation is very reasonably priced, and nitrox and any item of dive gear are readily available.
If you arent sure about the lines in a particular cave you can chat it all through around the centre campfire at night. If youre short of a buddy one day, staying somewhere like Dive Outpost will solve that problem.
Florida abounds in sites similar to those of Ginnie Springs and Peacock, so small wonder few American divers venture anywhere else other than the more exotic locations dotted around the Caribbean.
So what was the most striking change I experienced In eight days of diving, I never encountered a single rebreather, either above or below water.
Open-circuit diving is alive and thriving in the caves of Florida.

  • Ginnie Springs Resort, www.ginniespringsoutdoors.com. Dive Outpost, Luraville, www.diveoutpost.com Further information: Florida State Parks, www.floridastateparks.org, Diving Guide to Underwater Florida by Ned DeLoach, ISBN 1878348132

  • Martyn
    Martyn Farr
    Devil
    Devils Eye at Ginnie Springs.
    Entering
    Entering the water at Hart Springs.
    Cavern-diving
    Cavern-diving rules are strictly enforced and largely observed.
    The
    The entrance to Peacock Springs.
    Looking
    Looking out of Little River Springs.
    Divernet
    Cavern-diving
    Cavern-diving

    WHAT IS CAVERN-DIVING
    Cavern-diving is not cave-diving. It involves penetration of a cave but only for a limited distance (60m line distance), to a limited depth (30m) and all within the daylight zone. This foundation course does not involve restrictions or squeezes and two divers should always be able to swim side by side. Cavern-diver certification is an eminently achievable objective for most divers. A hood is not essential for short cavern penetrations, but is required for cave-diving. Gloves are not required.