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Mapping Water's Journey: Connecting the Aquifer with Life Above Ground

Our journey through the aquifer takes the dive team under gas lines, highways, farm fields, and the salad bar of a local restaurant.

Image of Divers explore an underwater cave. Divers have helped us understand the connection between the aquifer and the ground above.Divers explore an underwater cave. Divers have helped us understand the connection between the aquifer and the ground above.

By Peter Lane Taylor

Exploration—the act of looking for something we might never find-is an interesting concept these days. With virtually every corner of the globe known, mapped, and in one way or another, harnessed for human use, the whole idea of just looking seems to go against everything that we've learned about getting a leg up. Why search for something in the first place if there's no guarantee that we'll profit from the finding?

For people like Wes and his team of world class cave divers, however, the notion that exploration has gone out of style is much more than just a personal insult. In terms of the uncharted underwater wilderness here in north Florida, it's also down right frightening. It implies we're willing to accept the world as it's been passed down to us, and more importantly, that there's nothing we can learn about water's journey that can help to restore Florida's springs to their once pristine state.

“People think they're getting rid of their garbage by dumping it in the sinkhole, but what they don't realize is that they're putting it right into their drinking water.” --Wes Skiles

Today, the Karst cave exploration team led by Jill Heinerth and biologist Tom Morris intends to turn these assumptions upside down by proving that modern day exploration still has one ace left to play-namely, that of education. By connecting the uncharted underwater conduits between two sinkholes, Wes and his team are attempting to illustrate that the flow of groundwater here is directly affected by the human activities that take place above it.

Image of Surrounded by trash, Jill Heinerth and Tom Morris debrief from their dive during filming and discuss the "trail of garbage" they followed to reach the surface of the sinkhole, a direct connection to the aquifer and springs.Zoom+ Surrounded by trash, Jill Heinerth and Tom Morris debrief from their dive during filming and discuss the "trail of garbage" they followed to reach the surface of the sinkhole, a direct connection to the aquifer and springs. © Russell Sparkman

In theory, the plan for Jill and Tom's dive is a simple one: drop in at one sinkhole, scoot west-southwest at 210 feet and pop up at the second sinkhole to the fresh air of a sunny afternoon. In practice, however, nothing about cave diving is simple. Unlike other "extreme" recreations like high altitude mountaineering or open ocean sailing, the kind of deep penetration cave diving required to explore Florida's aquifer offers little margin for error.

"The risks are pretty simple once you're down there," Wes explains as Jill and Tom suit up for their dive, "If something goes wrong, you die."

And yet, ironically, no one seems to be worried about the upcoming dive. In the lush and tangled hammock creeping in around the entry sinkhole, Jill and Tom joke about the trail of underwater trash and refuse they'll be able to follow if their natural orientation fails them, while the rest of the production crew quietly prepares their gear. For Russell and I, both modest recreational divers with no cave experience whatsoever, the calm is unnerving. It's as if Jill and Tom are about to take dip in the local pool.

Once the dive is underway, however, there are no more jokes. Jill and Tom's time underwater is measured in breaths, not minutes. With over 200 feet of solid limestone separating them from the surface, the data from today's dive might as well be from the dark side of the moon.

Using Technology to Map the Caves

Image of As diners eat their lunch at a local restaurant, the divers' radio signal brings Wes Skiles and Brian Pease directly to the salad bar.Zoom+ As diners eat their lunch at a local restaurant, the divers' radio signal brings Wes Skiles and Brian Pease directly to the salad bar. © Russell Sparkman

The strategy of mapping underwater cave systems to estimate their relative location within a specific springshed in itself is nothing new. But today, Wes and his team are producing more than just "estimates". Using Brian Pease's pioneering radio telemetry technology, we'll be able to follow Jill and Tom's underground journey between the sinkholes on the surface in real time. If Wes' assumptions about the route of the conduit are correct, it's a journey that will take the dive team under Interstate 75, a stormwater retention basin of a motel, and below the salad bar of a local restaurant.

For those who continue to doubt the impacts of human activity on the aquifer beneath them, it also means no more excuses. Over the next three hours following Brian with the radio tracking device, our journey above the divers takes us across gas lines, highways, agricultural fields, retention basins, and right up to the loading dock of an industrial facility where dozens of barrels of who-knows-what sit just a few feet away from a stormwater drain.

Image of The diver's underwater radio signals lead Wes Skiles and Brian Pease to the loading dock of an industrial facility where runoff is flowing into a stormwater drain.Zoom+ The diver's underwater radio signals lead Wes Skiles and Brian Pease to the loading dock of an industrial facility where runoff is flowing into a stormwater drain. © Russell Sparkman

For Wes, Brian and the rest of the team, the journey is bittersweet: though the radio tracking equipment has worked flawlessly throughout the dive, the impacts of humanity on the underground conduit connecting the two sinks are much worse than they ever imagined. Even more frightening, notes Wes, is where the water's going — into our drinking water and the springs themselves.

By the time we arrive at the second sink in the late afternoon, Brian's receiver brings us our first bit of good news: Jill and Tom have completed their required decompression stops in the ascending conduit leading to the exit out of the sinkhole and are within minutes of surfacing. Down at the bottom of the sinkhole where the film crew has set up cameras to film the divers' arrival back to earth, it's as if a set designer had created the perfect stage for the climax to today's scene. There is trash and debris everywhere.

"It's the classic example of a 'go-away' hole," laments Wes. "People think they're getting rid of their garbage by dumping it in the sinkhole, but what they don't realize is that they're putting it right into their drinking water and the water where their children swim. Hopefully, the data from today's dive will start to change all that."


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Image of Producer Jill Heinerth, one of the foremost underwater cave explorers in the world, describes the day's diving and filming.

Jill Heinerth briefs the film crew on the day's plans

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Image of As diners eat their lunch at a local restaurant, the divers' radio signal brings Wes Skiles and Brian Pease directly to the salad bar.

Wes Skiles and Brian Pease as they track divers beneath a restaurant

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Image of During the making of Water's Journey: Hidden Rivers of Florida, Wes and his team explored Vampire Sink, only to find it littered with car batteries, automotive oil cans and more. Wes' filmmaking inspired the local community to clean up the sink.

Wes Skiles Describes the poor condition of Vampire Sink

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Image of Surrounded by trash, Jill Heinerth and Tom Morris debrief from their dive during filming and discuss the "trail of garbage" they followed to reach the surface of the sinkhole, a direct connection to the aquifer and springs.

Divers Jill Heinerth and Tom Morris describe trash in the aquifer

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My FloridaFlorida Department of Environmental Protection