Tragedy Strikes at Manatee Springs Cave: Father & Son Diving Incident

Incident LocationDeceased Diver
USA, Florida, Manatee Springs Cave SystemUnknown

On May 14, 2022, four certified divers made their way to Manatee Springs State Park for a diving adventure in its long cave system. They got themselves into big trouble after making several wrong decisions during the dive and had to find their way out without the appropriate knowledge of the cave system.

Manatee Springs State Park

Manatee Springs State Park is located in Levy County, Florida. It flows directly into the Suwannee River, and it is one of the longest springs in Florida. There are lots of sinkholes connected to the Suwannee.

One of them is the 90 ft (27 m) underground cave, which is linked to a popular place called the Catfish Hotel. It is one of the largest and the most popular entrances of the three sinkholes at Manatees Springs State Park. You are going to have a great experience diving in this open-water sinkhole. The second entrance is the Sue Sink.

It is located at a camping site and is oftentimes used only as an emergency exit. The third is Friedman’s Sink. Friedman’s sinkhole is a shallow sinkhole with just a 4 ft (1 m)-diameter, a narrow path into the ceiling of the cave. The Friedman’s sinkhole is 1,712 ft (522 m) away from the Catfish Hotel, which makes it the farthest from the Catfish Hotel.

If you have a flair for outdoor activities and you want to have lots of fun, especially in a natural environment, Manatee Spring State Park is one of the best for you. You can decide to go boating, camping, bicycling, fishing, hiking, picnicking, scuba diving, walking, running, or viewing wildlife. Manatee Spring is home to the gentle “manatees,” after which it was named.

Other animals that you can see at the park are largemouth bass, catfish, speckled perch, and bream. Also, Manatee Springs State Park is a place where you can find different types of trees, such as cypress, maple, sweet gum, and ash. On May 14, 2022, a group of divers arrived at Manatee Springs State Park for a diving adventure.

Dive Plan and Equipment

The group consisted of two fathers and two sons, making four divers in the entire group. They planned to enter the Manatee Cave System at Friedman’s sinkhole and traverse upstream and exit the cave system at the Catfish Hotel. All four divers are new to the Manatee Springs Cave System, though, and they only relied on a video they watched while preparing for their dive.

The four of them were certified divers, having obtained “Intro to Cave” certification with about 100 dives. They were fully equipped for the dive. They had their HP100 side-mounted cylinder, which had a pressure of approximately 3,800 psi. Each of the four divers had their primary and backup lights, and the two fathers had a flood light attached to their video cameras.

Initial Exploration and Doubts

At about 11:17 a.m., the four divers entered the cave system using the guideline; they all swam upstream. They were all conscious of the upline that was at Sue Sink, which ended at Catfish Hotel. They were divided into two teams, with the two sons in the first team (Divers 1 and 3) and the two fathers (Divers 2 and 4) in the second team.

The fathers’ team was following the sons’ team. When they got to the end of the line they’d been following from Sue Sink, they doubted if they were really at the exit to the Catfish Hotel. There was no visibility in the region where they were; it was very dark. Then, Diver 1, one of the sons, dove a bit away from that point to see if there was more visibility in that area, but it was the same.

So, he returned to the other three and notified them through the wet note, “Manatee?” But because they were aware of the previous incident involving a diver that got stuck exiting at Manatee Headspring, they had to take another route. They were not sure of their present location, so they turned back and dove toward Sue Sink.

They assumed it could have been the Catfish Hotel exit they had mistaken for Sue Sink. That was the nearest exit they were aware of. Now, they had to restructure the teams; instead of a father-father team and a son-son team, they made it two father-son teams. When they turned to find the exit, Diver 2, one of the fathers, discovered that his turn pressure was 3,100 psi; he also switched off his video light and swam against the flow.

Catfish Hotel

It was really hard for him to swim against the flow because of the current. When they were moving closer to the Sue Sink, Diver 2 was concerned about himself making it out of the cave, so he started pulling hand over hand and putting his head down. By the time he got to the Sue Sink upline, he saw diver 1 already ascending.

When Diver 2 turned to check for the other two divers, he saw that Diver 3 was leading the dive while Diver 4 was about 10–20 ft (3-6 m) away from Diver 3. So Diver 2 signaled to the two of them, and they both replied to him. Divers 1 and 2 safely got out of the cave system. Diver 1 exited around 12:00, 43 minutes after they entered the cave system.

He returned to the surface with 1,500 psi in both cylinders. Diver 2 exited at 12:05, having 1,500 psi left in one of his cylinders and 850 psi in the second cylinder. Diver 2 called 911 since divers 3 and 4 had not exited the cave. Instead of diving upline, the two divers missed the way and continued to Friedman’s Sink.

Diver 4 told his son, Diver 3, to dive faster. When Diver 3 ascended the hill that was just before the upline T at Friedman’s Sink, he looked back and saw Diver 4’s video light. So, assuming that Diver 4 was coming after him, he made his ascent and exited at Friedman’s Sink at about 12:20 with 1,500 psi in one of his cylinders while the second cylinder was empty.

Diver 4 never exited the cave, and the last movements recorded on his computer were at 12:17. Some qualified divers came to the scene and entered the cave system at the Catfish Hotel at about 12:50 in search of Diver 4. From the Catfish Hotel, they dove downstream to Friedman. There, they found his camera and light on the floor of the cave, about 100 ft (30 m) downstream of Friedman’s Sink.

Recovery of Diver

The International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery (IUCRR) team came to the scene of the accident. It was a two-member team. They dove into the cave system and found Diver 4’s body in a dome about 100 ft (30 m) downstream of Friedman’s Sink, where the first rescue team had seen his camera and light.

He had run out of air in his two cylinders. After analyzing the situation, it was discovered that many things contributed to the accident. One of which was the fact that they made too many wrong decisions before and during the dive. Their lack of knowledge about what the Manatee Springs Cave System looks like and the high current affected their dive.

Besides, their decision to traverse and go upstream into an unfamiliar cave system could also have played a role. They could have entered through the Catfish and dove downstream to set up the traverse. With that, they would have been acquainted with the flow and the distance they would go if they needed to dive upstream.

Other factors contributed to the accident apart from the dive plan. One of them is the fact that they turned back instead of using a safety spool to locate the zone of visibility. If this had been done, they would have seen the zone of visibility just 10–15 ft (3-5 m) away from where they were and known that they were at Catfish.

The other fact is that the decision of Diver 4 to use it as a video light after they had turned the dive wasn’t the best. The video light would have prevented him from seeing the line or the natural visibility at the Sue Sink. Diver 3 was deceived by the video light, which made him assume that Diver 4 was following him to Friedman’s exit when he wasn’t.

And lastly, the four divers didn’t work well together as a team. Diver 2 would have waited for Divers 3 and 4 when he signaled to them at Sue Sink so that they could get there too and followed him downstream to the surface. Also, Diver 3 ascended the hill to Friedman’s Sink and saw Diver 4’s light, but Diver 3 didn’t wait to ensure they both ascended together.

Maybe Diver 3 could have shared gas with Diver 4, who had run out of gas. But possibly because Diver 3 had little gas left in his cylinder too, he avoided having two casualties. But it remains a mystery in the diving community why four divers who were known to be safety-conscious had gone on such a dangerous dive.

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What happened to the divers at Manatee Springs State Park?

The divers made wrong decisions during their dive in the cave system and got into trouble. One of the divers did not make it out and tragically lost their life.

What were the divers’ initial dive plan?

The plan was for all four divers to enter the cave system at Friedman’s Sink and traverse upstream to exit at the Catfish Hotel.

What went wrong during the dive?

The divers doubted their location when they reached a dark area with poor visibility. They turned back and mistakenly dove towards Sue Sink, thinking it was the Catfish Hotel exit. They got separated and faced difficulties due to the strong current.

How were the divers rescued?

Two divers safely made it out of the cave system and called for help. A recovery team found the body of the diver who didn’t exit the cave. It was a tragic outcome.

What factors contributed to the accident?

Lack of knowledge about the cave system, making multiple wrong decisions, poor visibility, strong currents, and not working together as a team were among the factors that led to the accident.

Rebecca Penrose
Rebecca, an experienced blogger, delves into the world of diving accidents, sharing insights, stories, and valuable lessons learned. Dive in and explore the depths of underwater safety.
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