Danger Down Below? An accidental death raises concerns over the safety of Florida's underawater caves.

Words by:: Tessie Olivera| Photo Illustrations by:: Katie Reid
Photography by:: Cyndi and Ray Blanchard

No one will ever truly know what happened one August day this past summer.

The promised wonders of Devil's Ear, a Ginnie Springs cave, lured a certified diver like a stren's song to its mangnificence. Surely he felt comfortable - with three friends waiting at the surface - and perhaps he was exhilarated to push beyond his skill level as a diver by exploring a cave. Maybe the posted signs featuring the Grim Reaper with skeletons at its feet failed to deter him.

Whatever his intentions, adventure-seeker Brian Tindale, of Tallahassee, never resurfaced alive after attempting to cave dive that morning. On a weekend trip, his friends opted to canoe and snorkel. But Tindale, 24, decided to cave dive. He told friends he still had several minutes left in his air tank before dipping below the surface for the last time.

How could a certified diver lose his life in the water? When a Ginnie Springs dive instructor recovered Tindale’s body after his friends called for help, a myriad of possible scenarios unfolded.

A short supply of air was not the culprit. His friends said he had a few minutes of air left in his tanks. May it have been too dark in the environment of a cave? Could he have become disoriented and lost his guideline to the surface?

The details of his fatal dive will never be known, but cave-diving certified instructors want to diminish the dangers of cave diving with proper, repetitive instruction and qualifications.

“When following the rules, there has not been fatalities,” says open-water scuba instructor Jordan “Gooch” Gross, who owns Water World in Gainesville. “It’s very safe if done correctly.”

With a nod of his head and a promise to return in a minute, Gooch heads to the back of the shop, co-owned by wife and fellow diver Lynne, and re-emerges with a copy of the National Speleological Society Cave Diver Workbook.

A penned-in asterisk stresses the highlighted list title: “For the General Diving Community” under the main heading of Accident Analysis.

The most common direct cause of cave-diving deaths is the failure to run a continuous guideline to open water.

“When you get lost or temporarily disoriented, if you go on the main line then you know the way out,” says Dwain Thompson, an apprentice cave diver. “As long as you don’t panic, you won’t get lost. Take a second, look at the layout and make a decision. There have been close calls, but typically they find the main line and find the way out.”

For Thompson, the way out ends with a “big smile.”

Following the rules

For others, there’s no way out of the cave. Between 1960 and June 2004, there were 374 Florida cave-diving deaths, according to the International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery. Lack of proper training and cave-diving certification usually accounts for most of the deaths.

The cave diving community primarily adheres to five main rules that guarantee safe underwater experiences. The diver must be cave-diving certified (not just open-water certified like Tindale). This ensures that the diver is aware of running a countinuous guideline to open water, observing the Thirds Air Rule (reserving at least two-thirds of starting air supply for exit). Divers must not exceed the maximum depth limits for the diver’s level of training, and they must use at least three lights. An unofficial rule has been tacked on by cave-diving instructors and associations: no solo diving. In desperate situations, a cave diver who conserves enough air may be able to help a fellow cave diver get out alive.

“Most people who die were violating the rules – diving beyond their training. They may not have been carrying enough lights, no line, going too deep,” says Wayne Koszty, who has enjoyed cave diving approximately 525 times since 1998. “It’s not just newly certified divers – instructors die too – but it doesn’t mean a new environment is going to be unforgiving.”

 

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