The Mysterious Vanishing of Ben McDaniel

Incident LocationDiver Names
USA, Florida, Vortex SpringBen McDaniel

On August 18th, 2010, Ben McDaniel was diving in Vortex Spring Cave when something went horrifyingly wrong, and this event would go on to be the greatest mystery in diving history. This is his story.

The Disappearance

On Wednesday, August 18th, Ben McDaniel returned to a beach house owned by his parents in Santa Rosa, after having spent the last few weeks with them where they were living at the time in Tennessee. At around midday, he went to a local diving spot known as Vortex Spring, just north of Ponce de Leon, and completed one dive.

During this first trip, other divers in the water noticed him looking closely at the entrance to a cave deep inside the spring. It looked as though he was studying it like he was planning something. Then, a little while later, he surfaced and exited the water, and then went into the dive shop near the spring and refilled his tanks.

This was caught on the security cameras inside of the shop. Ben then spent the rest of the afternoon hanging around the shore of the spring, testing out his equipment and writing notes in what looked to be his dive logs. That evening, after a sweltering day of 32 Celsius or 90 Fahrenheit, Ben looked as though he was preparing for another dive.

Background and Exploration of the Cave

This suggested that he planned to enter the cave, despite the fact that the cave in Vortex Spring has a rebar gate that is padlock-closed, and the only people to have keys to this gate are the employees of the dive shop. Divers who want to explore it have to have explicit permission to enter, and permission is only granted to individuals who hold a valid cave diving certificate.

The dive shop employees knew that Ben didn’t have either of these, but suspected for some time that he’d been forcing the gate open anyway. In fact, oftentimes, they’d wait onshore when Ben went on these late-night dives until they saw bubbles on the surface of the spring. This indicated to them that Ben was doing decompression stops and then knowing he was safe, they’d go home for the day.

On this occasion, one of the dive shop employees just decided to swim down with Ben and open the gate for him. The two of them then swam into the large cavern at the bottom of the spring and then passed this infamous sign. This might be the single most recognizable sign in all of diving. It is a picture of the grim reaper with the word “stop” in big, bold letters.

Below the “stop” are some true stats about the number of divers who have died in caves, just like the one past the sign. But obviously, this was no concern for Ben, so the two of them continued on. Following that sign, they reached the rebar gate, which the employee opened, and then he watched as Ben squeezed his way under the narrow overhanging limestone and out of view.

As far as anyone knows, this is the last time Ben was ever seen.

Ben’s Background and Personal Challenges

Ben McDaniel was born on April 15th, 1980, in Memphis, Tennessee, and was the oldest of three kids. By the time he was in his 20s, his parents had done well for themselves and had become quite wealthy, but Ben was having the exact opposite experience.

The late 2000s were a really rough time in his life. First, he lost his 22-year-old younger brother to a stroke, which was obviously devastating. Not only was he extremely young, but the two of them were close and regularly saw each other and hung out despite the age difference. Tragically, Ben was also the one to find him unconscious at their home and tried desperately to revive him, but he was pronounced dead when paramedics arrived.

Their parents later set up a foundation to help other individuals with similar conditions, which Ben was involved in, but then, even more tragically, it was later revealed that it wasn’t a stroke after all. It was a drug overdose for drugs he hadn’t been prescribed. At the same time all of this was happening, Ben was simultaneously going through a hard divorce, and his construction business was failing in the wake of the economic downturn in the late 2000s.

Things got so bad that he had become $50,000 in debt to the IRS and was forced to move back in with his parents. It was just an incredibly challenging couple of years from Ben and his parents noticed how it had impacted him and changed his personality. With them being in a fortunate enough situation, they suggested to him that he take a sabbatical and go live at their beach house in Florida.

He was starting to think about the future again, and was less focused on how rough things had been in the past little while. Part of what motivated this change was that he was able to pursue one of his passions which was scuba diving. He had already loved scuba diving since he started going in his teenage years, but since he was in the perfect area and had the time to do it, he became obsessed with it while living at the beach house.

In particular, he loved going to a local spot known as the Vortex Spring, because even though he was right in the coast, he preferred diving in freshwater. Freshwater springs like the Vortex Spring are abundant in this area of Florida, but even among all these other springs, Vortex Spring is sort of unique.

The Vortex Spring

It’s home to the largest diving facility in the state, and it’s perfect for divers of all levels because the water is super clear, and the temperature of the water is warm enough that divers only need wetsuits when diving. For newer divers, there’s lots of wildlife to see and room to practice, and for more experienced and more technical divers, there is a massive cave at the bottom of the spring.

If you’ve got the certifications, you’re free to explore both of these areas, but the real attraction is obviously the cave. From the water’s surface, the spring extends down to a depth of 60 feet or 18 meters. This is where a large cavern starts. The opening to this cavern is 9×12 feet and has a handrail mounted along the wall.

This cavern extends 300 feet (91.4 m) further all the way to a depth of 115 feet or 35 meters, eventually coming to the cave’s entrance, which is blocked off by the steel rebar gate. And again, to get the key to access this deeper section, you have to show the dive shop that you are cave-certified. The difference between open water diving and cave diving can’t be overstated and requires that divers get an additional two months of training, along with 125 additional dives with a certified partner or instructor.

The whole reason the gate was installed in the first place was that in the ’90s, there were over a dozen deaths in the Vortex Spring in the cave. This then got the attention of the state who threatened to ban diving in the spring altogether, unless something was done to prevent divers from entering.

And from a cave diver’s perspective, even from a diver’s perspective, it’s easy to see why it would be such an attraction. The cave has over 1,600 feet (488 m) of limestone passages mapped to a depth of 310 feet (95 m), and it goes even deeper than this, but it’s inaccessible, simply because the passages become too narrow to continue.

Ben’s Disappearance

Some of these are just 10 inches (25.4 cm) across where divers actually have to take their gas tanks off and then twist and contort to get through. In the weeks leading up to August 18th, Ben had become well-known to the dive shop employees and to other divers who frequented the area. They’d see his truck sitting in the parking lot with Ben either by the waterside or in the water diving.

On the night that he was let through the gate by the employees, instead of waiting around like they sometimes did, they left for the night right away. After all, they had no obligation to wait for him. That was just something that they did out of courtesy. Sometimes, they waited and sometimes, they didn’t.

But the following morning, Ben’s truck was still parked in the parking lot. That day, no one really noticed because they had other stuff to tend to, and the lot was pretty full anyway. Then on Friday, they did notice that his truck was parked there and no one had seen Ben in the shop or around the spring.

It was at this point that they called police to investigate his disappearance. Here’s where things also start to get weird. Right away, police sealed off the spring to make sure no one else entered and started searching the immediate area and Ben’s truck to see if they could find any of his stuff.

In the search of the area, they didn’t find any of his tanks, his wetsuit, or any other dive equipment that belonged to him. But inside his truck, they found his wallet with $1,100 in cash, his cell phone, and his dive logs. In these logs, they found that he had been exploring the cave for some time and had made a map of the areas he’d gone.

After that, they went to his parents’ beach house and found his dog inside and hungry. It looked as though the dog hadn’t been fed in at least two days, so right around the time Ben was thought to have disappeared. Based on this information, both police and employees of the dive shop were pretty convinced that he was still in the cave and it was likely that he drowned.

Cadaver dogs were then brought in to search the area and kept leading police right to the water’s surface. This seemed to confirm the idea that Ben had entered the water and never left. As the search continued, news spread quickly through the dive community and cave divers of all levels volunteered to help search the spring in the cave to find Ben’s body.

At least, the assumption was that it would be a body recovery. Initially, the police thought that this outpouring of support was great and that this would definitely speed up any search efforts. But as more experienced divers got involved, they warned police how difficult of an operation this was. They were just a few dozen people on the planet who had the experience recovering a body in these conditions.

The combination of depth, narrow tunnels, and silty conditions meant that if something went wrong, it could easily be two body recoveries instead of one. Eventually, the most experienced divers began searching the cave, often with Ben’s parents and girlfriend sitting by the side of the spring, watching and hoping they’d find Ben.

Over the first few days, they searched large tunnels and small tunnels, and then they turned their attention to tiny crevices and fissures. An unfortunately all-too-common phenomenon in cave diving on a diver’s panic is that they’ll swim randomly, trying to find a way out and wedge themself deep into a tiny crevice.

He just barely made it out before he himself panicked, ended up stuck and drowned. But incredibly, despite all of these efforts, the only thing they found were some tanks believed to belong to Ben. Three tanks in total were found – all of which contained regular air. Two of the tanks were found in the outer cavern area, and one was found about 200 feet (61 m) into the cave. This was also weird.

The Mystery Deepens

At least one of these tanks should have contained a gas mixture different than regular air because of the depth he was diving to. With regular air at that depth, a diver would be susceptible to nitrogen narcosis. This is something that Ben would have, or at the very least, should have known, and it’s likely that he did know this because his dive log showed that he had already entered the cave on several occasions.

It’s unlikely that he would’ve survived previous dives if he had the wrong gas mixture like was found during the search. This only further confused the rescue efforts. By Sunday, so now four days after Ben had gone missing and two days after it was realized he was missing, someone from the search party got in contact with diving legend, Edd Sorenson.

Edd Sorenson’s Efforts

Not only is Edd one of the world’s premier cave divers, but he’s also a recovery specialist with over 2,500 dives during his long career. When he was contacted, he was actually on an expedition in The Bahamas, but basically, right after receiving the text message, he dropped everything and arrived in Florida the following day.

When he arrived, the other experienced divers who had already searched told him that going in any further than they had already gone was too dangerous. Edd disagreed with their assessment and then went on to make three separate dives. In total, he covered 1,700 feet (518 m) of the cave and at least 200 more than what Ben had mapped.

He even used a dive propulsion vehicle to travel faster and carried smaller tanks to squeeze through narrower openings. But in the end, he found absolutely nothing. No body, no equipment, and even no signs of increased fish activity from fish that might have been feeding on something decaying somewhere in the cave.

Unusual Lack of Evidence

In fact, there weren’t even any markings to suggest that someone might have squeezed their way through some of the tighter tunnels. If someone had squeezed through some of these, they would’ve dragged and disturbed the silt and marked the walls enough that it would’ve been noticeable to anyone else.

And even weirder than this, Ben was 6’1″ (1.86 m) and 210 pounds (95.3 kg). This is both taller than Edd and 20 pounds heavier. Edd himself found it very unlikely that Ben, who was not trained and not nearly as experienced, could have made it any further than he had. With each subsequent lead coming to a dead end, Ben’s parents got more and more desperate.

They were willing to try anything and everything for answers about what might have happened. First, they hired the man who originally mapped the cave to try to find him, but seven dives later, all he was able to offer them was an apology for finding nothing. Next, they put up $50,000 as a deposit for the cost for replacing a remotely-operated underwater vehicle.

Extensive Search Efforts

This ROV was then used to search the cave, but unfortunately wasn’t able to go any further than what the human cave divers had gone. When the search was finally winding down from the initial frenzy, 16 divers had spent 36 days straight scouring the cave and turned up with nothing. Oftentimes, Ben’s parents and girlfriends stood by the waterside, hoping for any sign of him.

Beyond this initial search, volunteer divers continued for months afterward, while police turned their attention to the area surrounding the spring. With how thorough the search of the cave had been, it started to seem less likely that he was in there after all. This is also when some alternative theories start to be put forward.

Alternative Theories

Like, for example, maybe his body was removed before searching began. It’s possible he did drown, but fearing the spring might get shut down, some other divers pulled him out before anyone found him. The two divers who saw him the night he disappeared were questioned, but their stories stayed consistent.

Police even had them take a lie detector test, but they passed these and sort of derailed this idea as well. It was also suggested that Ben was washed out through one of the spring’s outlets. But then, when police scoured the swamps which were the spring’s outflows, they again found nothing. They went on to search the nearby Blue Creek, Sandy Creek, and Choctawhatchee River and tested them 30 separate times over the following months.

All of these tests found no indication of any bacteria that would be elevated in the presence of a decomposing body. Further searches with cadaver dogs also came up with nothing from the woods surrounding the spring or the nearby area. This just ended up being another dead end. Another theory suggested by several people was that maybe he had faked his own disappearance.

Maybe with all the stress of the last few years, he needed to start fresh, so he staged his own disappearance to get away from his old life. Although this was technically possible, this didn’t seem to make sense either, though. He had seemed so positive in the weeks leading up to it. He had talked to his girlfriend about starting a dive-related business and even left his parents a letter before leaving their house, promising to take care of them in their old age because of how much he appreciated their support in the last couple of years.

Search Continues and Rewards Offered

Even more than that, he knew how hard his brother’s death was on them. It just wouldn’t make sense for him to do that to them, knowing what they went through. At least this was the opinion of Ben’s parents and girlfriend. By 2011, there wasn’t much hope from the dive community that Ben would be found anywhere in Vortex Spring because the search had been ongoing for months and scoured by some of the world’s best cave divers.

It just seemed impossible that he could actually be in there with all the resources poured into the search. Ben’s parents, on the other hand, weren’t giving up hope of finding their son. Increasingly frustrated by the lack of answers, they put up a $10,000 reward for “anyone brave enough to find him”.

Whether intentional or not, though, the insinuation that the divers were scared to search for him was kind of an insult to everyone who had spent the last several months volunteering. These individuals were basically risking their lives for someone who technically shouldn’t have been entering the cave at all.

The fear was also that by offering money, it might attract divers who weren’t really qualified to be doing recoveries. But despite the criticism they received for this decision, they went on to increase the amount of the reward twice, eventually to a total of $30,000. And just like the dive community warned, eventually, this fear was realized in March of 2012.

That month, a diver went into the cave one day and never exited. The following day, his body was found and then eventually recovered by Edd Sorenson. It looked as though he had gotten lost or panicked and couldn’t find his way back and eventually drowned. Although there was no explicit evidence that he was searching for Ben, Edd thought that this was the case because he was found near a shovel left near a restriction that was impossibly small.

And to reach this restriction, Edd had to pass through four other tight restrictions. This was far beyond the normal range of cave divers who frequented the spring. This death only prompted more criticism from the dive community, and especially Edd. As the one who had done the recovery, he knew intimately how the reward resulted in people risking their lives searching, and the lives of rescuers who ended up having to recover these bodies afterward.

Possible Foul Play

Following this, Ben’s parents finally rescinded the offer. They now firmly believe that if Ben wasn’t in the cave, he was likely the victim of foul play. While all of this was going on, they had hired a private investigator to look into the dive shop and its employees. This investigator ended up finding out that several of the employees had criminal records, and that the owner was currently facing serious criminal charges.

Some time before the disappearance, the owner hired a temporary employee who later ended up owing him money. Allegedly, the owner then took this employee out into the woods and assaulted him with a baseball bat, trying to get him to pay the money he owed. Thankfully, this employee ended up escaping and running off, and eventually, the dive shop owner was charged with assault and kidnapping as a result.

In 2011, so one year after the disappearance, he pled no contest to these charges and was given a fine and seven years of probation. Then, the owner died a year later in sort of a freak accident. There was a cookout held in December of that year by the dive shop, and during the cookout, the owner fell down a set of stairs and badly injured his head.

He was taken home and placed in a bathtub with a blanket over him, but then when people returned to his home the following day, he was in way worse shape. This person then called 911 and brought him to the hospital, but the dive shop owner then fell into a coma and died a month later. The weird part about all of this and how it relates to Ben’s disappearance is that the police refused to release information about the incident, claiming it was part of an ongoing investigation.

There is some speculation that maybe there was some link between the two cases or something had occurred between Ben and the dive shop owner, but again, there’s no solid evidence for any of this. As a final note, Ben’s disappearance was also investigated by diving legend, Jill Heinerth. You might remember her from the Iceberg Cave Dive video.

Closure and Unanswered Questions

She ended up hearing about this incident and wanted to make a short film to show Ben’s parents. Her hope was that by showing them the cave and conditions, it might give them the closure that they desperately needed. Prior to doing this documentary, she was of the opinion that Ben wasn’t in the cave, based on everything she knew.

But as she went through all the details and explored the cave herself, her opinion actually changed and realized through looking at his maps that he had gotten really far into the Vortex Spring. In the end, the short film was turned into a full-length documentary and Jill now firmly believes that Ben is somewhere inside the cave after all.

She thinks that the most likely scenario is that in a panic, Ben burrowed deep inside of a crevice, which is otherwise inaccessible and out of view. So in the end, this sort of leaves us with more questions than answers. The last verifiable sighting of Ben is on August 18th, 2010 when he filled up his tanks inside the dive shop.

Beyond that, any reported sighting of him is by other people at the spring or finally, by the two employees who saw them on their way out of the spring. Although there isn’t really any evidence or reason to discredit them, there is still the possibility that the version of the events they told police is inaccurate.

And although the simplest explanation is that Ben did enter the cave and did drown somewhere inside, it just seems impossible that there would be no trace of him despite how thoroughly it was searched. The fact that there were no markings or bacteria or fish or any other indication that there was a decaying body inside seems to further support the idea that he wasn’t inside the cave after all.

But if Ben wasn’t inside the cave, where is he? Was his body removed before officials could find it? Was there a coverup to prevent the cave from being closed permanently? Or did Ben fake his own disappearance? Were the events in his life too much and he eventually decided to simply abandon it at all? If this was the case, why would all the other signs indicate the opposite? Why would he tell his parents that he would take care of them and seem hopeful for the future? So if Ben hadn’t faked his disappearance either, was this then the result of foul play?

Supposedly, the dive shop employees knew that Ben was forcing his way through the gate. Maybe this led to an altercation with the dive shop owner. But without any leads, these are all just unfounded theories. It’s for this reason that the disappearance of Ben McDaniel is one of the greatest mysteries in diving history.

Before your next dive, consider insurance – it’s like having a dive buddy for unexpected challenges. Dive safe, dive covered. Explore options here


What happened to Ben McDaniel?

Ben McDaniel disappeared while diving in Vortex Spring Cave in Florida on August 18th, 2010. His body has never been found.

Was Ben McDaniel an experienced diver?

Ben McDaniel had a passion for scuba diving, but he did not have the necessary cave diving certification to explore the cave in Vortex Spring. He was known to enter the cave without permission or proper training.

What led to Ben McDaniel’s disappearance?

Ben McDaniel was dealing with personal challenges, including the loss of his younger brother, a difficult divorce, and financial struggles. He found solace in scuba diving and became obsessed with it during his stay at his parents’ beach house in Florida.

Was Ben McDaniel’s body found in the cave?

Despite extensive search efforts by experienced divers and the use of remote-operated underwater vehicles, Ben McDaniel’s body was not found in the cave. Alternative theories suggest that his body may have been removed from the cave before the search began.

What were the circumstances of Ben McDaniel’s disappearance?

After being let through the gate by a dive shop employee, Ben McDaniel entered the cave and never resurfaced. His truck was found in the parking lot, and his personal belongings, including his wallet and dive logs, were discovered inside. The search efforts focused on the assumption that he drowned in the cave.

Patrick Broin
Patrik, a seasoned cave diver, shares his first-hand experiences and expert insights on the treacherous world of cave diving accidents.
All diving accidents