Tragic Incident at Apopka Lake: Remembering Kevin James Gokey and Daniel Eugene Smith

Tragic Incident at Apopka Lake: Remembering Kevin James Gokey and Daniel Eugene Smith
Incident LocationDiver Full Names
USA, Florida, Apopka SpringKevin James Gokey, Daniel Eugene Smith

Today’s story is about two friends who went for a dive at Lake Apopka. They went over their heads and faced the consequences of one of the most dangerous cave diving scenarios – kicking up silt. This is the story of Kevin James Gokey and Daniel Eugene Smith.

Lake Apopka Description

Lake Apopka is a freshwater lake situated in Orange and Lake counties of the U.S. state of Florida. With a total size of 30,800 acres (125 square kilometers), it is the fourth-largest lake in the state. Rainwater springs and storm runoff are the primary sources of water for this freshwater lake, which then connects to Lake Beauclair and Lake Dora to the north through the Apopka-Beauclair Canal. Trails, an observation tower, and the lake’s original pump house are just some of the features that make the Lake Apopka north shore a prime destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

Lake Apopka is home to approximately 400 kinds of birds and is widely regarded as one of the best places in the world to see migrating birds. The wildlife drive across the eastern 11 miles of Lake Apopka’s north shore is a popular attraction and it comes with an accompanying audio tour so that tourists may sit back and relax while they take in the sights. Viewers of Lake Apopka’s beautiful vistas would also learn that the lake is undergoing a transformation to rid itself of human-caused pollution. The Apopka-Beauclair Canal was constructed in the 1880s as part of a larger project to modify the northern coast of Lake Apopka. Lake Apopka was originally 50,000 acres (202 square kilometers) in size, but a levee built in 1941 to facilitate cultivation would drain 20,000 acres (81 square kilometers) of marshes from the lake’s northern end. Thus, the farm’s effluent led to decreased fish numbers and algal blooms.

In 1980, further destruction occurred as the Tower Chemical Company spilled a lot of DDE into the river. The U.S. EPA, upon learning about this, immediately ordered the corporation to cease operations and launched a massive lake cleanup. The animals in Florida would suffer irreparable harm if even little volumes of tainted water leaked into the state’s rivers. Blooms have been a problem in Lake Apopka since 1991 when the non-profit Friends of Lake Apopka was formed to root out the source of the phosphorus leaks. The implementation of the Lake Apopka Restoration Act, which made the farms liable for any phosphorus release, was crucial to the success of the effort. St. John’s River Water Management was also given permission to rebuild the wetland areas along the river’s northern side. According to a 2002 report to the district’s governing board, gizzard shads excrete 58 metric tons of phosphorus and 175 metric tons of nitrogen on the southwest side of the lake.

The Incident

About 45 feet (13.7 meters) below the water surface, a vent is leading into Apopka Spring. For 16 feet (4.8 meters), the vent hole narrows vertically into the limestone before sloping northward at around 45 degrees to a depth of 90 feet (27.4 meters), creating dangerous diving conditions. Although divers at Lake Apopka frequently dive at this opening, the story of today doesn’t begin here. Divers were going into the Gordnick Springs, which is located just east of Apopka Spring. On Tuesday, July 4th, 1995, Kevin James Gokey, 34 years old, and Daniel Eugene Smith, 25 years old, went for a dive at Apopka Spring.

They traveled to Gordnick Springs by boat together with their friends. After putting on their diving equipment, Kevin and Daniel started their descent into the chilly spring waters. They told their friends that they wouldn’t stay underwater for a long time because they had about 45 minutes of air on them. When Kevin and Daniel didn’t return to the surface after 60 minutes, their friends got worried and contacted the sheriff’s department.

When the local authorities arrived on site, they realized that they lacked the essential training for the recovery attempt, so they contacted Jim Calvin and Mark Long, two local cave rescue and recovery divers. Mark had completed over 800 cave dives and had been cave certified for 14 years at this point. Mark and Jim descended into the waters, following Kevin and Daniel’s way into the lake. They eventually discovered Daniel and Kevin’s bodies after negotiating the small cave.

The men were together, floating in 96 feet (29 meters) of water just inside a tight spot between some rocks leading into the cave. Jim stated, “What happened to Kevin and Daniel during the short dive.” Jim and Mark declared that it was obvious that Daniel and Kevin were merely open water qualified divers. After removing the remains from the sea, they lacked a cave diving certification. Mark continued, “The place where these guys drowned is not someplace most people would go. It’s silty and restrictive.” For those of you who are not familiar with silty conditions, when kicking up silt in dark caves, it can be pretty much life-threatening.

Very soon, the visibility can quickly drop to zero, which means it is very hard to determine which way is up or down. In this case, there are only two chances of survival: either try to stay calm under dangerous pressure or your guideline. Every time they enter a cave, cave divers are required to place a guideline. When you’re ready to leave, it’s the only thing that will let you know where to go when you’re underwater. It’s simple to become lost, and you don’t want to lose any of your valuable seconds or minutes trying to figure out where you are.

Popular caves may occasionally have established permanent rules given forth by prior divers, although this is not always the case. You can never be sure if a long-standing rule is still in existence or how far it extends. Many times, cave divers would lay their own line of sight and remove it before leaving. As mentioned, Kevin and Daniel didn’t have the cave diving certifications; therefore, most likely, because of their inexperience, they didn’t have a guideline. It is speculated that they were kicking up silt, got lost in the dark cave, panicked, and drowned. This tragedy highlights the need for training and gear before venturing into caverns.

Mark Long also saw that Kevin and Daniel were only carrying a minimal number of lights. In case flashlights are dropped accidentally, the batteries run out, or bulbs burn out, cave divers should always have at least three lights on them. Additionally, when entering and exiting the cave, cave divers usually only consume a third of their air.

The additional third is kept in case of emergencies. Each diver carries a backup regulator in the event that their primary one breaks, but neither Kevin nor Daniel had one. Kevin Gokey and Daniel Smith’s deaths were completely preventable and needless. They shouldn’t have gone into those caverns because neither of them had any experience there. Additionally, one of the men, although it isn’t clear which one, had only recorded six dives overall and was a freshly licensed diver, according to local press reports.

Many divers believe that a cave diving certification is the next step after receiving their open water certification, but this isn’t always the case. It relies on a variety of variables, including your experience, abilities, and emotional stability. Diving in wide-open oceans is very different from diving in confined spaces like caves. Accidents like these are entirely preventable if you stay within the bounds for which you were instructed.


What were the names of the divers involved in the incident at Lake Apopka?

Kevin James Gokey and Daniel Eugene Smith.

Where is Lake Apopka located?

Lake Apopka is situated in Orange and Lake counties of the U.S. state of Florida

What are some features and attractions of Lake Apopka?

Lake Apopka offers trails, an observation tower, and a wildlife drive to observe migratory birds. It is undergoing a restoration process to address pollution issues.

What were the diving conditions at Apopka Spring and Gordnick Springs?

The vent leading into Apopka Spring created dangerous diving conditions, with silt being a significant risk factor. Gordnick Springs, located east of Apopka Spring, was the destination of the dive.

What factors contributed to the tragic incident?

Both divers lacked cave diving certifications, experience, and proper gear. Kicking up silt in the dark cave led to disorientation, panic, and ultimately drowning. The incident highlights the importance of training and preparation before cave diving.

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