When an experienced cave diver died this month while mapping the Devil's system, a formidable group of caverns, his was another life claimed by an unforgiving world most people never see.
By JULIE HAUSERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2001
HIGH SPRINGS -- On a gut level, there is something that clearly separates those of us who would wriggle into a tiny black hole in the bottom of a dark river from those of us who would not.
Florida's cave divers -- some of the most extreme modern explorers on the planet -- can't resist seeing what's inside. It might lead to a limestone cathedral humans have never seen or a tiny tunnel where rare creatures hide.
The explorers swim through the aquifer, one of the few uncharted territories left on Earth. New technology means that Florida's cave divers can go deeper and farther than ever before.
Some of them, like Steve Berman, don't make it out alive.
Berman was a 40-year-old underwater explorer who friends say had logged some 10,000 dives. He died May 7 in Gilchrist County, 3,500 feet back in a cave system near the Santa Fe River, mapping new sections of the underwater maze.
In the tight-knit community of cave divers around High Springs, northwest of Gainesville, Berman's death hit like a fighter's punch.
"If (the cave system) can take someone like him, it can take anybody," said Dave Sweetin, a 29-year-old dive instructor and one of Berman's students.
This is more than extreme sport. Cave explorers return from their dives with things all of us need to know.
Divers swim silently in the dark under roads and farm fields, subdivisions and minimarts. They bring back prehistoric whale bones, mastodon teeth, Indian artifacts. They chart detailed maps. They collect vials of deep spring water and creatures that have reproduced without light and air since dinosaurs walked the planet. There might be a cure for cancer in these frigid black caves, the divers say. Who knows?
The work of cave divers is especially important now, with Florida environmental regulators pushing to pump water polluted with human and animal waste into the deep aquifer. Engineers on the ground can speculate about what happens under our feet, but the divers experience it firsthand, down where blind albino crawfish live.
Berman was one of eight cave divers around the world to die so far this year. Four died in Florida.
He was alone. Friends found his body near the outer limits of the area that cave divers have explored.
Cave divers will tell you: Most of the time, we can't predict where the water might twist and turn. Many are like frustrated astronauts. They will tell you it's like another planet down there.
Their world mecca is Ginnie Springs, a private campground about 26 miles from Gainesville. Down in the maze around the Santa Fe, Suwannee and Ichetucknee rivers, there are underground rooms so big you could drive three semi-tractor trailers through and still have room for a passing lane. There are holes so small you take your tanks off to get through. There's a giant underwater sand dune. There are tunnels that lead nowhere, and tunnels that open new territory. Divers say it's like going into Westminster Abbey with no lights, or floating through the Grand Canyon.
Diver Jim Stevenson remembers shining a light into a cave and seeing dozens of albino crawfish fall from the ceiling like snow. In a cave just a half-hour drive from the state capital are huge, fossilized heads of coral. This was the ocean's bottom once. Now it is a freshwater cave, miles from the coast.
Under Wakulla County, divers have broken the world record for the longest dive, mapping 3 1/2 miles of labyrinth 300 feet deep. Some divers made a video and took it to county officials. The county changed development laws to protect an underground resource that no one had ever seen before.
Like mountaineers and sky divers and Arctic explorers, cave explorers die for the cause. Even the best can lose their lives. Like Berman: As an instructor, he taught hundreds of people how to cave dive safely, how to survive.
They found his boat in the dead of night, anchored in the dark Santa Fe River. His wife, Anita, called his diving buddies when he didn't come home.
He had been mapping one of the gnarliest known cave systems around, the Devil's system, named for two blue springs, Devil's Eye and Devil's Ear, that bubble to the surface at the Santa Fe River. Berman went in alone at 11 p.m. Cave divers aren't bothered by night; there's less boat traffic, and they don't need sunlight. Some never dive alone. Others say they can focus better without a buddy.
Inside the Devil's cave system is an underwater sign with a sketch of the Grim Reaper. Around the reaper's feet lie skeletons in dive gear. "STOP," it says, "Prevent your death. Go no further. FACT: More than 300 divers, including open water scuba instructors, have died in caves just like this one. FACT: You need training to dive. You need cave training and cave equipment to cave dive. FACT: Without cave training and cave equipment, divers can die here. FACT: It Can Happen to YOU! There's nothing in this cave worth dying for! Do Not Go Beyond This Point."
Berman had passed the sign dozens of times. He was trained. He used a special gas mix to breathe. He used an underwater scooter to propel him.
The divers who broke the world record at Wakulla used scooters, too. It took them about six hours. Afterward, they had to float for 10 to 14 hours to decompress, making the dive a 20-hour ordeal.
Berman, who also dove ship wrecks including the Andrea Doria and the Britannica, liked to listen to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon while he decompressed. He had rigged a Sony Walkman to work under water.
He knew the Devil's cave system better than most. Nine years ago, divers released the ashes of a father and son there. They were once Berman's students and later his close friends. They died elsewhere in a diving accident. Their ashes were shaken into this cold spring, where they first learned to love the sport.
People speculate that the best cave divers die because they get too confident. It's like when you're learning to drive and you're careful about the turn signal, brakes and keeping a safe distance. Before long, you're used to it, and you're just driving.
Most of the skilled cave divers who have died miscalculated. They got caught up in the exploration, distracted from the critical balance required by the tanks, lights and high-tech equipment.
No one knows what happened to Berman. An autopsy is pending.
Eight days after his death, two friends retraced his route. They knew the way because Berman discussed the dive beforehand. Also, when divers recovered Berman's body, his mapping notes were still attached to his wet suit.
The night he died, Berman rode his scooter a half-hour back into the catacombs to start mapping. He passed the Roller Coaster, a dark tunnel that undulates before it joins another passage. Berman and other divers had mapped 4,000 feet of deep underwater caves in the Devil's system -- as long as 11 football fields.
In caving circles, there's a lot of rivalry and clannishness. Different factions bicker over which kind of equipment is best, whether you should dive alone. Everyone is trying to figure out how not to die. Among the best, there is rigid insistence on safety. The watchword is "redundancy." Have a backup for everything. And a backup for your backup. Cave divers place "stage bottles" of extra gas in the caves at measured intervals because if they get in trouble, they can't get to the surface quickly. Berman was 150 feet from one of his stage bottles when he died.
Sometimes freakish things happen. Parker Turner, one of the best explorers, died in a cave off Wakulla Springs in 1991, when rock collapsed around him. Turner's dive buddies got out, but he did not.
A week before, Turner told a reporter: "I feel like we're in a race to document this big resource and get that information to people who can make decisions before it's too late." Today, divers have mapped nearly 19 miles of underwater caves at Wakulla.
Jeff Bozanic, cave diver from California, tracks cave diving deaths. Since 1950, Bozanic says, 528 people have died cave diving around the world, many in Florida.
"Every time it happens, it makes me stop and reevaluate everything I'm doing," Bozanic said.
Still, he'll gladly tell you about his trip to Antarctica, where he had to chase seals away from his breathing hole in the thick ice.
Last year, a cave diver named Bernie Chowdhury published a book called The Last Dive, which tells the story of the father and son whose ashes rest in the Devil's cave system. In the book, Berman talks about the dangers to people who take shortcuts.
"People who are in too much of a rush and who push it too far, too soon, run into trouble. The lucky ones see the flowing robes of Jesus down there, survive a very close call, and then when they get out of the water, the first thing they do is sell all of their gear and give up diving."
In another part of the book, Berman says, "I thought about going to work in some sort of office environment . . . But I see how stressed out the guys who come down to dive with me are about their office jobs.. . . Me? I get to go diving all the time, I get to take off for weeks at a time when I want to, and go and do neat stuff like dive the caves in Mexico, the Doria, the Britannica, and even weenie stuff like shallow diving for lobsters in the Florida Keys. Man, I can't imagine any job other than teaching diving!"
In the tiny community of Alachua, near High Springs, Berman is survived by his wife, Anita, three stepchildren and legions of diving friends -- all of them hoping to find out what went wrong.