Cave Diving: The Explorers
MIAMI (CBSMiami) – When you think of exploration, going somewhere no one has never been, you probably think of distant remote places. What if we told you there were parts of Florida being discovered right now. They are underground and for the first time in this report they are being shown to the world. We were allowed to capture this story for you as long as we agreed to one rule. We are not allowed to reveal the locations of certain places we filmed. We think it’s a silly rule though. You would have to crazy to go there.
Brett Hemphill looks ahead plotting which rock he’s going to pull next.
“This thing is smaller than I remember it,” he says over his underwater radio.
He then grabs a hold of a jagged piece of limestone and pulls himself forward. If you are claustrophobic this is defiantly not the place for you. Hemphill has crammed himself deep underwater into a hole he can barely fit his head through. All it would take is a single pebble to become lodged beneath him and he’d be stuck. But he keeps pushing through. A couple of explorers follow in behind him.
“Looks like it keeps on going. You guys okay,” he radios.
Everyone signals to keep moving forward. The payoff is big. Brett has discovered a new underwater cave. A place no one has ever seen before.
“The closest thing to exploring an underwater cave is like finding a mountain that no one has ever found. It’s not about claiming it in your name or saying you’re the first person but I really enjoy bringing that information back to the people,” he tells me.
And Brett has made some startling discoveries. A few years ago his team had perhaps a once in lifetime opportunity to force their way into a popular tourist attraction called Weeki Wachee, just north of Tampa. The place is famous for their mermaid shows and a massive gushing spring. The small entrance to the cave is impossible to enter. Brett explained “Weeki Wachee under normal circumstances lets out over 200 cubic feet of water a second.” During a drought the spring slowed down to 100 cubic feet a second. To put that in perspective a fire hose shoots out about four and half cubic feet a second. He pushed through 20 times that. Was it worth it?
“Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and I’m just like am I ever going to have an opportunity to explore that incredible cave system again,” he says.
The pictures he took are stunning. You could fit an entire football stadium inside certain sections.
Brett estimates in the last decade he’s discovered between 20 and 30 new caves around the United States. He runs lines and maps them out. On this discovery he invited us to see, he comes across a fascinating pile of history, some it thousands of years old. He points to bones on the ground as he explains “Every little piece of this is a fossil that has come down out of the ceiling. Not really sure what it is. You can see some sand dollars. Other types of bone.”
Brett and explorers like him consider themselves to be astronauts… underwater astronauts.
Matt Vinzant has accompanied Hemphill on a number of explorations.
“It’s one of the coolest feelings ever in the current world we live in. To go somewhere no one was ever been. More people have been on the moon then where we are going today, which is pretty neat thing,” Vinzant said.
It takes a certain kind of person to do this. Fearless you might say. Or some might say insane. During our time with Brett we saw a video of him catching a wild alligator. It was in the way of the cave entrance. He then rounded up an armadillo in the woods. Crazy was the word that kept coming to mind.
I flat out asked him. “Our viewers will watch this and some of them will say ‘wow that’s amazing’ and some will say ‘these guys are crazy.’ What do you tell the person who says you are crazy for doing this?”
He chuckles and then responds “It’s not an endeavor we take lightly. And as crazy as it may seem to them as a point of comparison to us it’s not.”
By day Brett lives a normal life. He’s a father of four and operates a window washing company. On his days off though he’s far from the norm. He threw our crew for a loop just trying to follow his exploration. At least one of the destination near Central Florida was so remote GPS was useless.
Once we got there things got even more bizarre. He explained to our underwater shooter Becky Kagan Schott “It’ll be bottles (scuba tanks) off restriction. It’s tight quarters.” Becky quickly turned back to him “You say bottles off you mean like pushing it in ahead of you?”
Without skipping a beat Brett replied “Yeah. One or both depending on how much it’s filled in.” Diving with your tanks in your hand, not on your body, is extremely rare. Many experience divers would balk at doing it. But it was necessary to go where Brett goes. As our cameras scrapped into the holes he slid through we were worried our camera wouldn’t survive his expedition.
Cameras are the least of Brett’s worries on many of his dives. He goes to incredible depths that require an unreal amount of time underwater. We’re talking about half a day underwater. With a collection of tanks and rebreathers he’ll dive for a few hours and then spend up to 16 hours decompressing. Essentially he has to sit underwater and let a buildup of trapped nitrogen escape from his pores. If he comes up to fast – the game is over. He’s dead.
So what do you do for 10, 12, 14 hours underwater? Brett smiles. “Well as I mentioned, I have a large family and four kids, three of which are teenagers. So a lot of the time I just meditate. It’s nice to be in a place where you don’t have to hear ‘hey dad,'” he says.
He pushes the limits on depth and time underwater. A perfect example of that is the exploration he’s been doing in middle of the of Texas of all places.
“We’re in the middle of the desert,” he laughs.
A documentary crew captured his journey into Phantom Springs. Equipped with water scooters and a half dozen tanks and rebreathers he traveled roughly two miles in and never saw the end. With each turn his team pushed the limits on depth.
The depth gauge drops to 350. 360. 380. 390. 410. 420. 430. 440. They stop moving forward as they hit 463 feet. It’s a ridiculous depth. And also a record. His team has discovered the deepest cave in the United States. Between the extreme depths and all the depth changes in the cave he estimates he’ll have roughly 18 decompressions to complete before he can exit safely. It’s unheard of.
Brett has been doing cave exploration for almost 24 years. I asked him “In your 24 years have you had any close calls?” He reluctantly answers “I have had a lot of close calls.”
Cave diving is already quite dangerous. Some could argue he’s taking it to another level. Does he ever think maybe he should cut it here? Maybe he should stop doing this?
“All the time.” he says as he laughs. Yet he still pushes forward. He explains something keeps drawing him back. “Every time I come back I appreciate life even more. And I feel a little more alive. I feel reborn.”
When Brett swims out of his latest discovery he has a dilemma. Does he tell the world about this place or does he keep it a secret?
He surfaces and rationalizes “You could see what would happen if a bunch of cave divers got in there. Even 20.”
The small quarters, the fragile environment. The cave wouldn’t survive.
“It’s a tough thing to do. To decide which ones should be public information and which one’s need to be kept quiet,” Brett said.
Can you imagine? You discover something no one has ever seen. And then you keep its location a secret.
Brett makes his decision, “It deserves absence.”
And that’s it. Off to the next exploration.
Brett hopes to return to Phantom Springs later this year or next. Right now his team is developing an underwater space station of sorts, so they can spend days underwater exploring.