The Tragic Dive: Harrowing Loss in the Indian Springs Cave

The Tragic Dive: Harrowing Loss in the Indian Springs Cave
Incident LocationDiver Names
USA, Florida, Indian Springs CaveGeorge Irvine, Parker Turner, Bill Gavin

In 1991, a group of the best cave divers in the entire world planned a series of expeditions in Indian Springs Cave in Florida. On the first dive of these expeditions, a horrifying event occurred that is so rare that it has still yet to reoccur in the 30 years since the incident. This is their story.

In Florida, there is an area known as the Woodville Karst Plain that stretches from Tallahassee, Florida into the Gulf of Mexico.

This 400-square mile (1036 km2) area is known as a karst landscape and is made up of limestone and other soluble rocks. The soft limestone easily dissolves in water, so rainwater and other flowing water slowly erode the rock over time. As a result of this erosion, karst landscapes are often littered with caves, underground streams, and sinkholes under the surface and steep rocky cliffs above ground.

In fact, the Woodville Karst Plain is home to the largest underwater cave system in the entire United States. One of the surface connections into this expansive cave system is an unremarkable-looking pond known as Indian Springs. Located in Wakulla County, Indian Springs leads down into the Indian Springs Cave system that’s at least 300 feet deep (91.44 m) and at least two miles (3.22 km) long.

In 1991, as part of the Woodville Karst Plains Project, a dive was planned in November that would be conducted by this team of what was at the time the most organized, sophisticated, and accomplished group of cave divers on Earth. They had already set a bunch of records for depth in a cave and time spent underwater, and this was gonna be the first in a series of dives in the cave to explore some potential leads.

These dives had already been planned for almost two years at this point, and they had even developed special decompression tables because of the extreme depth of the area that they were going to be exploring. Joining the support team was experienced diver George Irvine. This was gonna be his 77th cave dive and near his thousandth technical dive.

But despite all of that experience, he was still somewhat scared of cave diving. Every time he surfaced and saw sunlight again, he was overwhelmed with relief for having made it out again. And this was gonna be his first dive with the team of any significance. The system had been down for months, and so this first expedition would serve to get the rust off of all the team members.

One of the two exploration leads, Parker Turner, had assigned everyone some task, even if it was just something contrived just to get everyone involved. There would be three teams in the water that would actually enter the cave. The first team would place one set of gas bottles. The second team consisting of George and another diver was gonna place a second set of bottles for the traverse.

And finally, it would be Parker Turner and Bill Gavin to complete the exploration. Bill had been part of the initial exploration that had discovered the leads in the first place, and any remaining crew would act as support from the surface. For the type of dive that they were doing known as technical diving, they were gonna need two types of gas mixtures.

On the traverse, they would use a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen, and then they would switch to a trimix of oxygen, helium, and nitrogen on the deepest section to mitigate nitrogen narcosis. This is a phenomenon that occurs when certain gases and regular air have a narcotic effect at high pressures. On November 17th, the teams arrived at Indian Springs and prepared to enter the water.

The spring itself is a little pond in a clearance surrounded by trees, there’s a boardwalk that goes down to the waterside, and there’s even a little dock floating in the middle of the spring. Team 1 dipped below the pond surface and then made their way to the bottom and then to the cave entrance.

Team 2 went next and made the same descent. And finally, Parker and Bill entered the water for the longest and most challenging dive of the three groups. Teams 1 and 2 would place all of the equipment first, and then Bill and Parker would be on their way in as the other teams were leaving. The traverse to the area where the leads were found was about 40 minutes.

Then, they would spend around 25 minutes exploring at 300 feet. Then, another 40 minutes to leave again. From the pond floor, there is a cavern that eventually turns into Indian Springs Cave. This cavern leads into a tunnel that extends for a couple hundred feet until an area known as Squaw’s Restriction.

The cave narrows here to a point that just a single diver and their equipment can get through at once. After that, it opens up once again to a series of winding tunnels that are made of rough, yellow, and white limestone. Thankfully, because of how popular the cave is, there are permanent lines fixed almost the entire length.

These lines help to guide divers even in poor visibility. Bill and Parker made the long traverse through the winding tunnels until they made it successfully to a massive room known as the Wakulla Room. They spent the allotted time searching around, and then at around 63 minutes, they started to make the traverse back.

Unbeknownst to them, a rare and horrifying event was occurring that is one of the only like it to have ever occurred in diving history. On the way back, they picked up their nitrox bottles and Bill checked that he had plenty of gas left in the tanks on his back. As they were doing this, Parker signaled that his underwater scooter was running slowly, so Bill tethered the two of them together and then pulled both of them using his scooter.

Cloud of silt

They were only about 1,500 feet (457.2 m) from the entrance now, so it didn’t matter that this would use up his battery more quickly. Eventually, they reached a distinctive arrow marker on the line about 500 feet (152.4 m) from the entrance. On the way in, Bill estimated that the point that they would reach that marker would be about 105 minutes into the dive, so they were perfectly on schedule.

Then, they made the left turn following the marker and noticed that visibility had decreased. Although they had been pretty careful on the way in, they might have still kicked up some silt, so it wasn’t anything to worry about. They continued on and saw that the floor was now completely obscured by a billowing cloud of silt.

Thankfully, the line ran along the ceiling and that was clear. But as they continued, visibility just kept getting worse and worse. Eventually, they had to stop using the scooter and switched to holding the line because of how bad visibility was. When they got to the area where Squaw’s Restriction should have been, the line just disappeared into the sand.

They started pulling on the line to pull it up out of the sand, but eventually, it went so deep that they couldn’t even pull it out. Right where Squaw’s Restriction was, there was tons of sand and visibility was less than a foot. Bill heard Parker shout, asking what this was, and then the two of them backed up and removed their stage bottles and scooters.

The stage bottles were just about empty at that point anyway, so they switched back to the tanks on their back. Whatever this was, it seemed like it was gonna take a long time to figure out. In that section of the cave, there were two fix lines, so the first thing they did was check the one that they weren’t on, but it also led directly into the sand.

This made no sense. They had just come through here. A little while earlier, about five minutes after George and his partner passed through Squaw’s Restriction, the water came rushing past them, and the cave bottom turned into a sandstorm. George thought that his scooter had somehow turned on and was bouncing around, bumping into things, but in reality, the decompressing divers were creating bubbles that floated up and changed the buoyancy of the rocks on the ceiling.

No way out

The momentarily heavier rocks then broke away from the ceiling and plummeted down and caused a mudslide directly into the path of Squaw’s Restriction, completely covering it up. By the time Bill and Parker returned, there was no longer a way out of Indian Springs. On the other side of Squaw’s Restriction, Bill attached his reel to the main line and started to search around for the way out.

From what he could see, although he didn’t know how, it seemed to be blocked with sand and rock. But with visibility so bad, he couldn’t tell what had happened or if he was even in the right place. He eventually noticed a light flow of water, so he followed that for a bit.

But after searching some more, he doubted that they were actually at Squaw’s Restriction. Maybe they had made some sort of mistake on their way out. While Parker continued to search, Bill swam back out about 300 feet back to find the arrow again. He just stared at it, trying to ensure he hadn’t misread it or made some silly mistake.

When he was absolutely sure he was right, he swam back into the sill and back to Parker and the two of them spent the next 45 minutes desperately trying to find a way out of the sand, burning through their gas tanks the entire time. Bill and Parker eventually checked their pressure gauges and realized that they were getting very low on gas.

Parker grabbed his piece of slate and wrote, “What do we do on it?” and then handed it to Bill. Parker obviously hoped that the more experienced Bill had some idea, but Bill had no clue either. The only thing he could think to write was, “Hold on, I’ll go look.” And then he tied his reel to the main line and started a sweeping search again.

Again, he found nothing, so he went back. But even though he was gone for less than five minutes, Parker was nowhere to be found. Bill grabbed his stage bottle and breathed from it for a little bit, using that time to think of a plan. Once the stage bottle was empty, all he’d have left is a few minutes of air and the tanks on.

After four minutes, the stage bottle was out. Parker still wasn’t back, and he was just minutes from drowning. He frantically searched again and this time, found a line attached to the main line. In his panic, he didn’t understand how it got there, but he followed it anyway. Then, there was a small opening in the restriction.

In it was the second stage of a regulator, which again, in his state, he didn’t quite register exactly what that meant. He freed the regulator and then saw a line ascending almost straight up and out of the restriction. Then, almost completely out of air, he raced up to the next set of bottles a hundred feet up.

Just as he was about to run out of air, he reached the next set of bottles, basically on a breath hold. But despite making it to the bottles, there was no relief. Parker was not there. These were the same bottles that Parker should have been using also. It was at that moment that Bill realized Parker had drowned.

He realized that the regulator he found was Parker’s, the line that he followed was Parker’s, and in the poor visibility, Parker’s body was probably floating around somewhere in the silt. So he just sat there waiting for support divers to find him. Up on the surface, just after the cave in, the pieces that broke loose and the sand that was displaced caused the water from the spring to rush in and fill the space.

As the water was flowing to fill the new area, the water level was actually observed by the surface crew to drop by a foot or so. Then, suddenly, it stopped lowering as Squaw’s Restriction got blocked up with sand. The water flow had also pushed all of the silt to the other side of the restriction shortly before it was blocked.

This meant that George and the other divers were in perfectly clear water all of a sudden. Still with no idea what happened, George was confused to find that his scooter was in the same place he left it. Now, you’d think that this would be concerning for the surface team to see all the water all of a sudden drop like it did, but this is actually not uncommon.

Caves and springs often raise and lower depending on the water flowing within them. The outflows are often not known and sometimes, for whatever reason, water flows more quickly out of them, causing the water level to drop. There are even a few recorded occurrences of entire lakes disappearing entirely only to reappear later.

Lake Jackson, for example, in Florida as well, drains entirely for years at a time. But then, George and his partner eventually noticed the silt was returning once again. And now, they were starting to get really uncomfortable with the weirdness of the whole thing. The team above had already gotten out, but they were still about 20 feet (6.1 m) below the surface, but George decided that he should go down again and briefly check things out. He swam down to about 110 feet (33.5 m) and everything seemed to be fine from what he could see. He checked out the bottles and saw that they were still fine, but from how deep he was, he couldn’t actually see the now completely remodeled Squaw’s Restriction.

The silt that he was seeing was actually the result of the restriction reopening and all of the silt from the other side filtering back over. Thinking that everything was okay, he returned to the surface and he and his partner finally went up and out of the water. But his partner looked completely freaked out.

He just seemed to have a bad feeling about the whole incident. He asked George if he had seen either of them and George replied no, but the bottles were still there, so everything should be okay. Then, another one of the support divers popped his head out of the water and was asked if everything was okay and if he had confirmed a visual contact with the pair.

He confirmed that he saw Bill and his partner confirmed that he had seen Parker, and that Parker had even waved at him. The support diver then said, “Uh, that wasn’t Parker. That was me waving at you.” Upon hearing this, George’s partner immediately turned to him and said, “Something isn’t right here. I’m going back down to check,” and then dove back into the water. About two minutes later, he resurfaced and told George that he’d found Parker’s tanks hanging on the line and that he and Bill were not with the tanks. They both went down after that and tied into the line because visibility was still almost zero in that section.

Then, they started searching in the murky water, desperately hoping to find Parker and Bill before it was too late. At some point, George ran into someone and realized that it was Bill, and he wasn’t moving. Then, he noticed he was breathing, so he checked his pressure gauges to ensure he had gas. But Bill just sat there, not acknowledging George.

Parker is dead

Eventually, he pulled out his slate and passed it to him, and George realized why Bill was acting so weird. On it, it said, “Parker is dead.” George’s heart dropped when he read the message. He just sat there for a second, staring at the slate, not registering the full meaning of the words.

When he snapped back into it, he realized that Bill was probably in some state of shock. He needed to ensure that he had enough to breathe for however long he’d need to decompress. He tried to communicate this to Bill, but he was clearly out of it. He couldn’t get him to move, and Bill didn’t seem to care if he even had enough gas to keep himself alive.

Eventually, George tied a reel to where Bill was and swam to the surface to tell the others. When he surfaced, he tied to the dock and got himself together before finally saying to the others, “Parker is dead.” He was barely even able to get out the words. He exclaimed to the others that someone had to go down and get him because he wasn’t moving.

He told them where he was and to follow his line, and within seconds, another diver had his tanks on and was getting back into the water. They eventually moved him from where he was to a better spot where he had to stay in decompression for four hours because of the additional time he had spent at depth. Over that time, Bill was filled in with as much information as they could give him about what they knew.

But for a while, he had no idea how much the cave had collapsed or if anyone else was missing. Thankfully, he would exit the water without physical damage from decompression sickness because they hadn’t actually been quite as deep as they expected while exploring. In the meantime, George tied back into the main line and started desperately sweeping the cave, looking for his friend’s body in the silts.

After nine passes, he eventually ran out of gas before finding any trace of Parker. When he exited the water, he even forgot to decompress and got minor decompression sickness as a result. By the time he finally exited, cops and dozens of other people were swarming the area. Among the crowd were other cave divers familiar to the team, suggesting that Parker may have found an air pocket or something along the cave roof.

George tragically reassured them that the depth where he ran out of air would’ve made this impossible. The team explained to police that they didn’t have enough gas to make any more attempts that day, and so they would have to return the following day after resupplying. Two men from the group drove to Parker’s house and broke the news to his wife while the others returned to the individual who owned the compressor to refill the gas tanks.

Bill’s van was parked outside the house, and that’s where he sat all night collecting himself. The following morning, he emerged from the van and rejoined the group back in Indian Springs where he laid out the plan to clear the restriction and then bring Parker out safely. But the police arrived shortly after and told the divers that they’d already entered the water at 6:00 AM and retrieved the body.

Ironically, it was Parker who had taught the local police how to conduct dives and how to do body recoveries. The friends he had made during that time teaching them didn’t want to leave him in the water any longer. After analyzing the incident countless times, the divers think they figured out the sequence of events.

Around the time Bill felt the flow of water, Parker must have felt it as well. Parker, unlike Bill, had actually found the source of the flow, which was a small hole in the restriction. Almost completely out of air, Parker decided to take his tanks off and squeeze through. He tied his safety spool into the main line and then dragging his tanks, forced himself through the opening.

After making it to the other side, he unfortunately ran out of gas and passed out around 30 feet from the decompression tanks. When he passed out, he dropped his tanks. They landed on the line down below, and then he floated to the ceiling because of the positive buoyancy of his wetsuit. It seems that by forcing himself through, he cleared the restriction even more, allowing Bill to squeeze himself through with his tanks just a few minutes later.

Parker’s tanks had also landed on the line, positioning it directly outside of the hole, giving Bill a perfect guide up and out to the decompression tanks. Had it not been there, Bill isn’t sure that he would’ve made it. A delay of even a single minute meant that he might have drowned as well.

As of a paper published in 2015, this is the only known cave dive death that was due to natural causes rather than human error. The effect of decompressing divers on the surrounding cave system is now a widely known phenomenon because of this incident. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t well-known then. Following the events of November 17th, 1991, many of the divers from the team stopped cave diving altogether.

George and Bill took some time off, and George almost stopped entirely as well. Eventually, they slowly returned to diving once again, and at some point, George invited Bill down to Mexico to do some cave diving. In a film about the Woodville Karst Plains Project, Bill would later say, “A day has not passed that I have not thought about Parker.”

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 in Indian Springs Cave in Florida in 1991?

A group of experienced cave divers planned a series of dives in Indian Springs Cave. During one of the dives, a cave collapse occurred, trapping two divers inside the cave.

What caused the cave collapse?

The collapse was caused by the displacement of sand and rocks due to the movement and buoyancy of divers’ bubbles during decompression. This resulted in a mudslide that blocked the passage known as Squaw’s Restriction, cutting off the divers’ exit route.

Did the surface crew realize what happened?

Initially, the surface crew observed a drop in water level caused by the rush of water into the newly formed space. However, they were not aware of the cave collapse itself or the trapped divers until later.

What happened to the divers who were trapped?

One of the divers, Parker, drowned during the search for an alternate exit route. The other diver, Bill, managed to find a way out through a small opening and ascended to the surface. Unfortunately, Parker’s body was not recovered.

Was there any prior indication or warning of the cave collapse?

No, the cave collapse was a rare and unexpected event. The divers had no indication or warning that such an incident would occur during their dive.

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