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Exploring Wakulla Springs: One Small Step for Inner Space

Students join the expedition as the team explores one of the largest spring caves in the world.

Image of Bald cyrpess in the morning mist on the Wakulla River.Bald cyrpess in the morning mist on the Wakulla River. © Russell Sparkman

By Peter Lane Taylor

Springs are a lot like people. Once you've spent enough time with them, you discover that no two are alike; each has its own character and spirit as well as good days and bad days. Springs also have their shining stars, where evolution seems to have spent a bit more time making sure it got everything right. In north Florida, that star is Wakulla Springs.

"Wakulla is the Mecca of springs and underwater caves," diver and film producer Jill Heinerth tells me. "Movies, world-record cave dives, archeological discoveries, you name it—Wakulla is where it all happened first."

“Wakulla Springs is the Mount Everest of underwater caves. It is the largest single-source freshwater spring in the world.”

Today, on the coldest morning of the year so far, our team of online explorers is here with David Struhs*, the Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and two dozen local school students from the Cornerstone Learning Community and the Florida A&M University Developmental Research Center to witness yet another Wakulla first: an experimental cave dive by Jill, her husband Paul, and Shannon Caraccia to test radio tracking and voice communication technology, invented by electrical engineer Brian Pease, that will allow surface teams to map the underwater journey of cave explorers in real time.

Image of Jill Heinerth, one of the top cave divers in the world, uses a closed-circuit rebreather that recycles carbon dioxide back into oxygen to help her penetrate the lunar darkness of Wakulla Springs.Zoom+ Jill Heinerth, one of the top cave divers in the world, uses a closed-circuit rebreather that recycles carbon dioxide back into oxygen to help her penetrate the lunar darkness of Wakulla Springs. © Russell Sparkman

"What we're doing here today," Jill explains as she assembles her equipment for the dive, "is giving cave divers the equivalent of mission control and a way to communicate through hundreds of feet of rock to the surface. If this technology works, we'll change the face of cave exploration forever."

Wes and Jill have chosen Wakulla to test their new technology for the simple reason that if it works in Wakulla, it'll work anywhere. Wakulla Springs is the Mount Everest of underwater caves. It is the largest single-source freshwater spring in the world, flowing at its peak at over fifteen-million gallons of water an hour and nourishing a great diversity of plant and animal life. Wakulla's inner geology is no less staggering: thousands of feet within the main conduit draining the aquifer, over three-hundred feet underwater, cave divers have found caverns and passages large enough to host a football game.

For those of us who have come to Wakulla today for the first time, the idea that a frontier of such Grand Canyon proportions could lie beneath the black, misty pool in front of us is difficult to grasp. Though lush and primeval on the surface, Wakulla Springs is just 10 miles from the sprawling interface of Tallahassee. Yet, it's for precisely this reason that Wes, Jill, and Brian are determined to pioneer the technology to help people log their own "virtual" dives into Florida's aquifer. Wakulla's inner wilderness, like the unexplored frontier of underwater caves throughout the state, is something you've got to see to believe, and as far as Wes in concerned, it's the responsibility of cave divers to establish this personal connection with the aquifer for those who will never witness it first hand.

"If we can help people connect with the aquifer through this technology and show them where our water comes from," Wes explains to the students as the divers get underway, "We can help them understand why it's so important to manage the human activities which affect water quality and inspire them to get involved."

Within minutes of the first transmissions from the divers, it's clear that Wes and Brian have firmly established that personal connection for the students and others lucky enough to witness today's event. As the receiver crackles to life, the students stop speechless in their tracks and hover over Brian's garage shop antenna as if it were hardwired directly to the moon. Though hundreds of feet beneath us under a ceiling of solid limestone rock, it's as if Jill, Paul, and Shannon are right next door. For Wes and the rest of the Karst team who have put their reputations on the line with a public display of a new and uncertain technology, the satisfaction of today's test is greater still. Even Brian, often the last to fluff his feathers over his inventions, allows himself a pat on the back.

Image of When it comes to getting children excited about groundwater and the science and technology of exploring underwater caves, Wes Skiles is a master.Zoom+ When it comes to getting children excited about groundwater and the science and technology of exploring underwater caves, Wes Skiles is a master. © Russell Sparkman

Over the next few weeks, Jill, Wes, Brian, and the rest of the Karst team will begin to put their new transmission technology to use, exploring and mapping other underwater caves throughout north Florida relative to the land surface features which impact them from above. In terms of protecting the aquifer, it's just the kind of data Secretary Struhs has been hoping for.

"What expeditions like this allow us to do," he explains, "is to connect natural science with political science. The dive team is giving us the information we need to build popular support for protecting the springs and to take the steps legislatively and financially to follow through."

Wes is equally optimistic about the future.

"What we did here today might not seem like much to some people," says Wes, "But it's these kinds of small steps that got us to the moon. With this technology, who knows where we can go from here?"

If Wes gets his way, it'll be even deeper into the aquifer to explore underground rivers.

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Image of Jill Heinerth, one of the top cave divers in the world, uses a closed-circuit rebreather that recycles carbon dioxide back into oxygen to help her penetrate the lunar darkness of Wakulla Springs.

Jill Heinerth talks about the need to understand the aquifer

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Image of As if talking to an astronaut on the surface of the moon, Brian Pease establishes communication with Shannon Cariccia through rock over one-hundred feet beneath the surface of Wakulla Springs.

Jill Heinerth describes radio tracking technology

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Image of White Ibis

Sounds of morning bird life at Wakulla Springs

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Image of When it comes to getting children excited about groundwater and the science and technology of exploring underwater caves, Wes Skiles is a master.

Wes Skiles and students discuss the source of water

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