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Sunken caves reopened to divers

Four years after access to Eagle's Nest pond was closed, divers can again explore the caves beneath its waters.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published July 19, 2003

photo
[Times photo: Kevin White]
Wildlife biologist Mike Wickrowski looks across Eagle's Nest pond, a world-renowned scuba diving site.

The mystery of a Hernando County pond that has graced magazines, books and Web sites worldwide is about to become as clear as the crystal water that envelops the enormous caverns hidden hundreds of feet below the algae-scummed sink.

On July 1, Eagle's Nest newest owner, the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area, opened the pond to the public, allowing divers full access to an underwater treasure often visited illegally over the last decade.

Eagle's Nest has been likened to the Florida diving community's Everest, not just because of its spectacular views and depths, but because of the logistical difficulty in accessing the submerged caverns.

Four-wheel drive is a must, because the 30-minute ride from public access on U.S. 19 traverses rock, sand and dirt roads complete with mud puddles that could swallow a car.

"There's a mystique about it, because people all around the world know about this dive site, but very few people have actually dove it," said diving instructor Larry Green, who has been one of the most persistent advocates for public access to Eagle's Nest.

Diving had been completely banned at the pond for the last four years, a policy established in August 1999, when the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, purchased the 720-acre-tract of land that included the pond.

Previous landowners also limited the pond's access to a few chosen divers.

Over the years, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission employees have routinely begun their Monday mornings repairing the regular weekend slashing of the barbed-wire fences surrounding some of their property. It's the only access to the illustrious sink and some 34,000 acres of off-road vehicle heaven.

The National Association for Cave Divers and the National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section have lobbied, and practically pleaded, for access to the pond, first with Swiftmud, and then with Fish and Wildlife, which acquired the property in a land swap last year.

Finally, Fish and Wildlife gave in. They're even spending about $12,000 to build a boardwalk, dock and stairway that will allow spelunking divers to more safely climb into Eagle's Nest while minimizing the impact on the surrounding area.

The Florida Marine Research Institute recently sent divers to the pond to record and report the condition of the cave and its wildlife, so state officials can compare how the caverns fare after a yearlong influx of divers.

"We weren't sure how many people are going to be in this area, once people knew about it, and it has the potential of being overused," said Mike Wickrowski of the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area. "But if we come back and there's no difference, then you guys can keep doing what you're doing."

The cave isn't for beginning divers. Caverns drop to about 300 feet, depths which require multiple tanks and a special mixture of gas and compressed air.

Thirteen years ago, a 29-year-old Tallahassee man drowned at Eagle's Nest in about 200 feet of water. The potential liability of drowned divers made Swiftmud reluctant to open the hole to the public.

Once Chassahowitzka Wildlife Mangement Area took control of Eagle's Nest, they saw no reason to continue prohibiting divers; especially considering that each fall they invite liability with hundreds of camouflaged hunters armed with rifles and shotguns.

"These divers know the risk they're taking," said Wickrowski, a wildlife biologist.

Although the pond is technically open to the public, bulldozers and construction crews will be blocking many of the access roads over the next few weeks. First, crews will be working on several washed-out roads. Then, in early August, the boardwalk and dock will be constructed.

Local divers said they were excited about the Eagle's Nest opening. Some, however, said they were also concerned that the state would not prevent inexperienced divers from plunging in.

"I'm concerned if an accident happens that they'll close off access again, but I'm excited that a dive site of that caliber is open," said Paul Heinerth, owner of Scuba West in Hudson, who has been diving at Eagle's Nest since the 1970s. "There's not another one like that around."

- Jennifer Liberto can be reached at 352 848-1434 or liberto@sptimes.com

Read about the original closing of Eagles's Nest pond here: http://www.sptimes.com/News/82399/Hernando/State_agency_bars_acc.shtml

[Last modified July 19, 2003, 06:35:10]


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