Beneath the stunning beauty of Florida’s Eagles Nest Sinkhole lurks a treacherous secret – and a perilous underwater marvel that’s fascinated numerous explorers and divers. Even highly experienced cave divers have underestimated the dangers of this sinkhole, and as a result, the high risk environment has unfortunately claimed the lives of several people – at least 13, so far!
Tucked away within the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area in Hernando County, Florida, this fascinating underwater landscape was formed over 1000’s of years by slowly dissolving limestone. Plummeting to depths of more than 91 metres (300 feet), this underwater cave is one of the deepest in Florida and it presents daring divers with an awe-inspiring – and terrifying – challenge.
All that depth puts anyone brave enough to dive down at risk of nitrogen narcosis, a serious condition caused by the increased partial pressure of nitrogen in the bloodstream. Nitrogen narcosis is definitely something to be avoided underwater, as it can lead to many life-threatening situations, due to disorientation and impaired judgement.
As divers surface, they face another threat – decompression sickness, known as “the bends”. This is caused due to the sheer depth and high pressure and it’s a condition that can definitely be fatal. If divers don’t use the appropriate gas mixtures, the swift return to the surface can cause nitrogen bubbles to form in the body and this can cause excruciating pain or paralysis, or even loss of life.
If they’re unaffected by decompression, divers will still have to navigate their way through the narrow, maze-like cave system, which is certainly no easy task. They’ll also have to contend with poor visibility, as all the silt stirred up by their movement and the water flow can mean their ability to see, or communicate, with other divers is all but absent.
One wrong turn might have disastrous consequences, resulting in entanglement or disorientation, plus the extreme drop in water temperature introduces yet another risk. Eagles Nest Sinkhole boasts a unique phenomenon, known as thermoclines, where layers of warmer and colder water blend.
Unless divers are wearing adequate thermal insulation, the sudden switch in temperatures can cause hypothermia, placing them in even more jeopardy. Hypothermia can skew judgement, coordination and decrease physical ability, making anyone suffering from it much more likely to have an accident or run into trouble.
One huge factor heightening the dangers of Eagles Nest Sinkhole is the limited number of emergency exits, due to the fact that it’s an enclosed cave system. Unlike open-water dives, where divers can get to the surface fairly quickly in most cases, the narrow passages and confined space makes it tricky to swiftly ascend. If you suffer from a medical emergency, gear failure, or loss of air, you can be in serious trouble.
Running out of oxygen underwater is often fatal – as it was for one unlucky father and son duo who lost track of time and dove to 233ft in Eagle’s Nest, running on just the air in their oxygen tanks, in 2013. Equipment failure is equally dangerous – and this is what caused another man to lose his life in Eagle’s Nest in 2017, after his friends discovered he had gone limp at a depth of approximately 100 feet. Though they managed to get him to the surface, sadly they couldn’t revive him but the cave system’s murky depths have also claimed another two divers from Fort Lauderdale in 2016, when the pair failed to resurface.
Anyone planning to venture into the depths of the Eagles Nest Sinkhole should go well prepared, as this perilous natural secret demands the utmost respect. The sinkhole is an enticing phenomenon whose depths are still mostly uncharted, which is why it’s currently being studied by many scientists around the world. The unique conditions and many unexplored areas of the sinkhole present an amazing opportunity to study the subterranean ecosystem and geological processes that have shaped the region over millennia.
As the sign at the entrance warns though – only experienced divers with cave diving training should even think about exploring the confines of Eagle’s Nest sinkhole – and even then, it can still be dangerous. If you’re going to dive there, strict safety protocols must be followed and proper equipment checks should be carried out, so that exploring one of the world’s ultimate thrills doesn’t mean paying the ultimate price.