I can feel rock on my body above and below me, the passageway becoming narrower and narrower as I push myself farther in, my mask fogged without enough room for me to clear it leaving me nearly unable to see. I can just barely make out the opening that connects me to the larger cavern and I’m nearly there, just a few more feet. As I reach the opening I feel my oxygen tank grind into the rock above me as my wetsuit suddenly begins scraping the rock below me. This can’t be happening, I think to myself, I can’t be stuck down here.
Cave diving is a recreational activity enjoyed by hundreds of people all over the world, but only for those that aren’t afraid of tight spaces. Central Florida is very well known for its intricate underwater cave systems my cousin Morgan and I were visiting one of the more famous of these caverns, Devil’s Den. Devil’s Den is located in the small town of Williston, about a half hour drive south of Gainesville and is a popular spot for scuba diving and snorkeling alike. In fact, it gets so much traffic that many times, because diving takes priority, snorkelers will be turned away and asked to come back at a later date. As we made the drive through large open fields and I stared out at the cows and horses, I couldn’t help but think what an unusual place it is for scuba diving.
Upon our arrival we checked in and were required to sign a waiver explaining the potential consequences of ignoring the safety precautions. We also were asked to show our open water certification cards. For the majority of cave diving locations, a cave diver certification course is required, however at Devil’s Den only an open water diver certification is necessary. Long time employee and 22 year dive master Prince Johnston explains, “All the true cave systems have been barred off from day one, and we don’t allow knives, reels, doubles, or side mounts, basically no technical diving is allowed, so without those people can’t really go too far anyways.” This is perfect for my cousin and I as we wanted the experience of cave diving, despite not having the advanced certification.
After checking in we geared up for the dive. We are given a buoyancy compensator device or BCD, a regulator, weights, fins, a tank with 3000 psi, a mask, a flashlight, and, surprisingly, a wet suit. Because Devil’s Den is connected to the Florida aquifer it holds a constant temperature of 72 degrees, staying cool in the summer and keeping warm in the winter, even releasing large clouds of steam when the air gets cold enough. After we assembled our BCDs, and suited up, we received a dive brief from our dive master Gary Goldtrap, who has logged over 4,500 dives at Devil’s Den. The dive brief is basically a quick lesson about what to expect.
“Devil’s Den is essentially a large cylindrical cavern with a central pillar of stone that rises to the surface providing a dive platform.” Goldtrap explained to us. “There are absolutely no big strides allowed when entering the water. When you get down there you’re going to follow the large cavern around the center pillar counterclockwise, and at the end of the rotation, if you want more you can turn around and go back the way you came and it feels like an entirely new dive, with you seeing things that you hadn’t seen on your first go ‘round. I see new things every time I go back down.” He then gave us a brief history of Devil’s Den, telling us that “The top of the cavern caved in about 75,000 years ago and we’ve found the remains of Mastodons, Giant Sloths, Sabre Tooth Cats, Camels, 15,000 year old human remains, even buffalo. In winter time steam comes out of the hole, so back in the 1800s pioneers saw a hole in the ground with steam coming out of it, so they called it the Devil’s Den.”
After the brief we pulled on our BCDs and headed over to the entrance, which is just a stone staircase that descends about thirty feet into the Earth, then another wooden staircase that descends an additional twenty or so feet down to the water. We carefully descended the steps until we were standing on the central platform about knee deep in water under a large hole in the ceiling that allows sunlight to shine down into the sinkhole. We did a quick buddy check before sliding into the blue water, deflating our BCD’s and beginning to sink down. The first thing I noticed is how little natural light from the chamber above actually penetrates into the depths of the water. We needed our flashlights almost immediately to be able to see anything at all. As I surveyed our surroundings I was greeted with the sight of a large cylindrical chamber, the outer walls of which are riddled with holes for us to freely explore.
As we began to navigate the caves on the outer walls, I realized that I had a lot to pay attention to; because the caves are so narrow in certain places I could not kick very hard, thus having to use the sides of the cave walls to pull myself along. When scuba diving it is important to achieve neutral buoyancy, or a state in which there is just enough air in your BCD to keep you from floating or sinking, but because weren’t staying at a consistent depth I found myself consistently having to adjust my BCD inflation as well as re-equalizing the pressure in my ears every time we dove deeper or rose to a shallower depth all the while attempting to keep my flashlight pointed out in front of me to not run directly into a rock face. On top of all of this, in order to keep my vision clear I had to constantly flood and defog my mask as I had unfortunately received an older model. It felt as if my hands were never still, always making adjustments here, or gripping the rock wall there. It became increasingly unnerving.
As we came to the exit of the very first cave we had entered, it began to narrow extremely quickly. Morgan was in front of me and is quite a bit smaller than me, so had no problems squeezing through the cave mouth, however as I swam closer I could feel the cave touching me on all sides and for a brief moment as my torso and tank scraped the cave walls and I attempted to wriggle out, my mask inconveniently fogged, and I couldn’t help but think to myself what would happen if I became stuck and that if I actually did get stuck but managed to make it out, that my mother was going to kill me. But thankfully, before I could think about it any further, I popped free of the cave mouth and happily continued the dive.
As we continued to explore the cavern, we could see where the deeper areas of the cave that would lead out into the Florida aquifer have been blocked off with what appears to be rebar. At this point in the dive a large class of learners had entered the area, and because the cave is made up of limestone, the water had become quite murky with silt from the walls. My cousin pointed into the entrance of one cave, motioning for me to shine my light in and as I did. we could see a large catfish just lying at the bottom of the cave. We also saw a few turtles, but they seemed to mostly avoid the divers. At this point we had used most of our air so it was time to surface and as we climbed, exhausted, back up onto the central platform, we took a moment to really appreciate the beauty of the cavern. As we began our ascent of the stairs to remove our gear, I thought to myself how surprised I was to see any kind of life in this place at all, but when I asked Johnston about it after the dive he wasn’t shocked in the slightest.
“There is a whole different world out there. Underwater there are Brown Bass, Catfish, Albino Catfish, Freshwater Eels, different types of turtles.” Johnston recalls, “Above ground we have possums, mice, certain types of snakes, we’re honest about that, [and] we even have a bat colony that comes through. You name it; it’s been through here. We lost many of our large fish in 2012. The water got so low that they left and swam right down the aquifer out of the cavern, but I know there is still a three to four-foot catfish that peruses the cavern sometimes.”
Johnston, who has logged over 6,000 dives as of 2001 (past that he had stopped counting), has been working at Devil’s Den since 1991 as a dive instructor. Devil’s Den is a very special place to him as he learned to swim in its waters, and had taught his children and his grandchildren to do the same there.
“This dive had a mystical quality about it,” recounts Morgan, who is herself a lifelong diver. “Climbing the stairs down the narrow passageway into the depth of the den was ominous in itself. Upon entering the cavern, it was an awe-striking sight. The pool of water was bright blue in contrast to the surrounding stonewalls, and it was being illuminated from above by a hole in the top of the cavern. It kind of felt like stepping into a child’s adventure story setting. And, the adventure didn’t stop there. After descending into the murky depths, the terrain was filled with rock formations and holes to explore. I knew I was only in a limited area but every turn we took underwater felt like something new to explore. Even after turning around and retracing our swim, everything seemed to be from an alternative view. I would definitely do this dive again. I loved the magical quality and endlessness of the perspectives underwater.”