A Maze Of Mysteries

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By Michael Wisenbaker,WKPP Archeaologist

Entrenched in the sandhills of the Apalachicola National Forest,Big Dismal Sink drops some 75 feet before breaching the sparklingwaters of the Floridan aquifer. The last 40 feet of the sink cutthrough sheer limestone walls mantled by a resplendent array ofliverworts and ferns. Many years ago my school pals and I wouldconverge at this cenote where we found relief from north Florida'ssweltering summer sun by leaping from the sink's rim into itschilled 69 degree waters. We did not know nor care that thisbackwoods swimming hole would later prove to be a gateway into thelongest underwater cave (17.5 miles so far) in the UnitedStates.

This marvelous maze and nearby conduits lie in a region referredto as the Woodville Karst Plain, which stretches more than 450square miles from Tallahassee's south side into the Gulf of Mexico.Limestone, ranging in age from 38 to 23 million years old, foundhere usually rests anywhere from the surface to just 20 feet belowground. The sugar-white sands overlying the limestone weredeposited as terraces and dunes during higher sea level stands ofthe Pleistocene. Springs, sinkholes, lost rivers and karst windows(depressions in the land where roofs of underground streams havecollapsed and exposed sections of caves) afford the only surfaceevidence of hidden caves and voids that riddle the karst plain'sbasement. Etched by the gradual corrosive effects of acidic water(primarily derived from rain passing through the atmosphere andforming carbonic acid) that dissolve more soluble portions of thebedrock, the caves themselves formed during the past two millionyears as Ice Age ocean levels fluctuated with climaticoscillations. 9th grade ela.

A Maze Of Mysteries
Emerald Sink
Maze mystery

Florida has been acclaimed for its springs ever since apocryphaltales of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon's search for the 'Fountainof Youth.' Samuel Taylor Coleridge found inspiration for KublaKahn's sacred river Alph and 'caverns measureless to man' not inMarco Polo's accounts of China, as one might suppose, but inWilliam Bartram's descriptions of springs in Florida. The WoodvilleKarst Plain holds seven of the state's 27 first magnitude (thosewith a minimum flow of 64.7 million gallons of water per day)'springs.' Wakulla Springs is by far the most famous such featurein the karst plain, although it pales in comparison to Spring CreekSprings in terms of water discharge. While Wakulla averages a mere252 million gallons of water per day, Spring Creek Springs, asubmarine spring in Oyster Bay located about 11 miles south ofWakulla, spews forth some 1,294 million gallons of water eachday!

In the 1830s, visiting French naturalist Comte de Castelnauspeculated that the water in Lake Jackson just north ofTallahassee, which periodically disappeared into sinkholes,resurged at Wakulla. Similarly, E.H. Sellards, the first person tohead the Florida Geological Survey, predicted more than 80 yearsago that the water swirling below ground at River sinks (part ofthe Leon Sinks Cave System) fed Wakulla. The ability to examine thecaves feeding the springs, however, did not become possible untilthe advent of scuba in the late 1940s. Wakulla became a magnet forunderwater cave exploration in the 1950s when several students fromnearby Florida State University boldly penetrated a couple ofhundred feet into its mammoth vent. Today it remains the ultimatechallenge for the world's top cave divers.

At any rate, in 1987 a visionary named Parker Turner came alongand established the Woodville Karst Plain Project (WKPP) tosystematically investigate the region's caves and associated karstfeatures. He told all who would listen that the area south ofFlorida's Capital City afforded late 20th century adventurers anopportunity to explore one of the Earth's last uncharted regions.Turner said, 'the map is the important thing, there has to besomething worth dying for.' (Ironically, Turner died in the cave atIndian Springs in 1991 as a result of freak avalanche.) Heassembled a group of hard-core explorers to probe this underworldand to provide researchers and government agencies with hisfindings. Thus the WKPP began diving these deep caves, perhaps theharshest and most hostile environment on the planet, in asystematic and consistent fashion. Currently, the group has 100 orso dedicated volunteers with diverse backgrounds and multipletalents. Members of the team include world class cave divers,engineers, scientists, students and others. Some come from as faraway as Texas and New York to participate in the project. Whilefocusing on caves in Florida's Big Bend, WKPP members have explored18 cave systems in Mexico and 25 in the Bahamas. Recently they alsosurveyed caves in Brazil and Turkey.

WKPP explorers routinely stage various breathing gases andscooters (to pull them through the caves three times faster thanthey could swim) along their route in case they incur problems withtheir life support systems. Having adequate backups is critical,since the labyrinths are completely devoid of either light or air.The main exploration team recently switched from regular scuba toHalcyon rebreathers, thus giving them much more time to explore.They wear dry suits inflated with argon and don thinsulateundergarments that allow them to withstand the cool water for aslong as 16 hours or more. Special valves made into the suits permitthe divers to relieve themselves. Food and liquids are cached inwaterproof tubes. The explorers employ highly streamlined and onlyessential gear that enables them to move through the water aseasily as fish. If suitable cave diving gear is not availablecommercially, the team makes its own such as the super scootersused to propel them through the caves.

In order for them to find their way back from where theystarted, cave explorers install thin nylon guidelines, just asTheseus unwound a ball of string to find his way out of theLabyrinth, that they carry on large reels. The divers also usethese permanent guidelines to map the tunnels. They tie knots inthe lines at 10 feet intervals, before the dive, to measuredistances. At each station where there is a change of direction,surveyors take azimuth readings with a compass and record depthswith a wrist gauge. These data are recorded on a slate, taken backto the surface and plotted, resulting in what explorers refer to asstick maps. More detailed three dimensional maps are usually madeof openings and more noteworthy features of caves as well aspopular caverns. Cave surveyors generally carry tapes for doing thelatter, although new technologies are in the works that will allowmuch of this to be done electronically. The survey data can then beput into computer programs capable of producing maps.

WKPP ExplorationDiver

While using specialized gear and techniques for extreme cavediving, the team reaches ever farther and deeper into the bowels ofthe north Florida underground. Voids in the rocks on which thekarst plain lies range from passages large enough for a nuclearsubmarine to minuscule fissures that only the smallest of creaturescan pass through. As of summer 1998, the WKPP, and a few individualexplorers before them, has linked 27 karst windows-including BigDismal Sink--through more than 17.5 miles of twisting passages inthe Leon Sinks Cave System. The maze represents the most extensivewater-filled cave in the United States. Furthermore, the end of theline in this cave rests tantalizingly close to Wakulla Springs,which divers have mapped more than eight miles of passages in thusfar. On July 24, 1998, the team set a world's penetration record bytraveling 18,000 feet from the entrance of Wakulla into one of itsprimary conduits. The main goal of the team is to link contiguouscave systems such as Indian Springs, Chip's Hole, Wakulla, andperhaps Spring Creek Springs to the longest cave.

People often question why anyone would want to face the perilsof tracing these deep, dark passageways, some of which are likedescending into a maelstrom. Each person probably has his or herown reasons for pursuing this activity. 'Being involved with theWKPP is like seeking the Holy Grail. While the prize is a worthygoal, the reward is the journey,' states long-time diver JesseArmantrout. Current project director George Irvine, never lackingin opinions or self-esteem, who has spent a fortune-not only of hisown money but in time devoted to the project--quips that he 'got onboard to see what was around the next corner, and stayed on boardto finish the job, because nobody else is better equipped in everysense to do this than me . . .' Parker (Turner) said 'we do thisbecause they will not let us be astronauts.' 'I do it because it isbetter than being an astronaut. At least we can get to the moonevery time we fly,' Beyond that 'we are about to get a swath (inpublic ownership) from Tallahassee to the Gulf of irreplaceablenatural wonder, thanks to our work and the efforts of others,' saysIrvine.

Whatever their personal motivations, the WKPP is providingcritical information about the origins and paths of the region'swater. For example, water clarity at Wakulla Springs has diminishedmarkedly as growth around Tallahassee has spread like an Ebolavirus. This has resulted in increased runoff from paving largeareas and filling wetlands that once served as nature's filters. Inthe 1950s visibility in the spring usually ranged from 300 to 200feet. Now the team is lucky if the system stays clear for an entireseason. The glass bottom boats that ferry tourists over the springvent at Wakulla run for only a fraction of the time that they ranin the past. Several years ago, turbid surface waters from heavyand frequent rains entered the sinks upstream and kept the springblack for almost 2.5 years. Irvine says, 'What's happening to thesprings is heart breaking. The fact that there is so much watermoving through there is bad, in terms of pollution, because thingsare carried a long way in a very short time. We're running a raceto get as much information about this system as we can before it isdestroyed.'

'The divers have already proved that water gushing from thespring originates from many tunnels,' according to Scott Savery,park biologist at Wakulla. He goes on to note that the WKPP isplaying a vital role in park planning by 'seeking to find exactlywhere the brown runoff water is entering sinkholes.' 'The mainreason people come to Wakulla is to see the magnificent artesianspring and river where many movies, such as Tarzan and the Creaturefrom the Black Lagoon, were filmed,' says Savory.

Deco Station in Wakulla
Maze mystery

The problem, though, goes beyond mere water clarity. High levelsof nitrates, which arise from animal wastes, septic tanks andfertilizers, are becoming increasingly prevalent in Wakulla as wellas other springs throughout the world. Many once cobalt bluesprings now appear green or brown. Jim Stevenson, a biologist withthe Florida Department of Environmental Protection, remarks 'somepeople say you can never pollute springs. There's too much watercoming out. But this is real. We're seeing it. The springs aresteadily going down hill.' To make matters worse, Stevenson saysthat 'the reason we haven't dealt with this problem is that it'sout of sight. How do you get the public excited about groundwater?It isn't saving the whales. It isn't the Everglades. You can'twatch a sunset over it. But when you are looking at the springs andsinkholes, you are looking at groundwater.' One way the divers aremaking the public aware is by bringing back video footage, stillphotos and maps of the caves. If the WKPP team succeeds, WakullaSpring's crystalline blue waters may be again restored to theirformer grandeur.


So the WKPP team is providing a wealth of information toscientists and government officials. When asked, they take watersamples, install flow meters and collect geologic and sedimentspecimens. Frank Rupert , a geologist with the Florida GeologicalSurvey, opines:

Mapping the caves of the Woodville Karst Plain is vitalto understanding the hydrogeology of this unique region. Studyingmaps compiled by the divers allows geologists to relate cavelocations to local karst features, regional fracture systems, andbedding planes or formation contacts in the carbonate bedrock. Themaps are useful clues in unraveling the mystery of how subaqueouscaves form. In addition, such maps are vital in determiningsubterranean connections between sinks receiving surface runoff andpristine groundwater resources such as Wakulla Springs. The mapshave already been used by local officials to establish a blue-beltarea along the conduit trend, within which potential pollutingactivities on the surface, such as gas stations, are restricted.The karst relationships revealed by the maps may also prove usefulas a model for other as yet unexplored karst and submerged caveareas in Florida and elsewhere. The end result is not simply anaccumulation of hydrogeologic data; the most visible impact to thepublic will hopefully be a more informed citizenry and government,being made aware of the subsurface facts necessary for intelligentprotection of their precious groundwater resources.

Maze Mystery

Another important reason for studying caves stems from the factthat these dark reaches provide habitat for a group of animalscalled troglobites that can only live within the stygian depths.The eminent French speleologist Norbert Casteret dubbed them'pariahs of creation.' Most of these rare albino animals are smallinconspicuous invertebrates such as blind cave crayfish, amphipodsand isopods that have evolved entirely within the subterraneanrealm. Although we know virtually nothing about the aquatic caveecosystems in which they live, we do know that they have littletolerance to pollution and that the threat of extinction loomsunless we can find and halt sources contaminating the Floridanaquifer.

The springs and sinks of the Woodville Karst Plain also serve astime capsules, providing insights into the lives of a magnificentarray of creatures no longer with us. George Gaylord Simpson, anAmerican paleontologist, said that the 'present fauna of Floridaare only a poor and colorless remnant of what it once supported.'Animals that lived in the state until 10,000 years ago includedmonstrous bears, gargantuan cats, horses, peccaries, tapirs,llamas, bison, dire wolves and huge tortoises. Giant armadillos andsloths and a beaver that would dwarf its modern cousins joined inthis parade of Goliaths. Some of these creatures met their fates infunnel-shaped sinkholes too steep for them to escape. I recentlysaw this happen at a sink where a large soft-shelled turtle foundits way into a steep-sided doline from which it could not crawlout. With only cave crayfish and little redeye chubs to feed on, Iexpect that the sinkhole will serve as the critter's tomb and afeast for the tiny trolls living in the cave.

WKP Exploration Team

An almost complete mastodon settled near the edge of the basinof Wakulla Springs sometime in the distant past. The reconstructedskeleton of this ancient elephant now greets visitors to the Museumof Florida History in Tallahassee. Later, more mastodon remainswere found in the spring, as well as giant armadillo, deer and 600bone spear points made by Native Americans. Springs such as thismay have been deep sinkholes during the last Ice age, since watertables were much lower when these animals flourished in the DeepSouth.

A few years ago, WKPP diver Steve Irving reported and gathered asample of dugong bones about 1,200 feet back at a depth of 140 feetin the cave at Indian Springs, located between Wakulla and the LeonSinks Cave System. This animal represents an Oligocene relative ofthe manatee that lived more than 33 million years ago, according toDaryl Domning, a visiting paleontologist at the Florida Museum ofNatural History in Gainesville. The bones probably dissolved out ofa matrix of Suwannee limestone in which the lower part of this caveis carved.

Adventures In Odyssey A Maze Of Mysteries


A Maze Of Mysteries Adventures In Odyssey

Animals were not the only things attracted to karst openings.Indians began trickling into Florida at least 12,000 years ago,some of whom settled at Wakulla and other springs and sinkholesfound throughout the region. They were called Paleo-Indians andlived in the area for 2,000 years. Unfortunately, most remnants oftheir sites on land, as well as those of more recent NativeAmericans, have perished-leaving little tangible evidence of theircultures. On the other hand, the alkaline waters of springs andsinkholes preserve a whole range of organic material that can beradiocarbon dated and studied. Shallower portions of these sinksprobably served as rock shelters during times of lower watertables. Some cave passages also contained dark nodules of chertembedded within the lighter colored limestones. Indians oftenfashioned tools from chert-a flint-like rock that often occurs nearthe contact of Suwannee (Oligocene age) and St. Marks limestones(Miocene age) in the region's sinkholes or outcrops. The earliestFloridians used these tools for hunting and butchering animals aswell as for other purposes. As scientists meticulously unveil morebones and artifacts from the silty shrouds covering cave floors,many puzzles of our past will be solved.

A Maze Of Mysteries Adventures In Odyssey

These underwater caves are priceless treasures. Based oncountless treks into the lengthy labyrinths by modern-day explorersprobing one of the earth's last frontiers, we now know that theyplay a crucial role in supplying fresh water to the region. Themodels being developed due to the work of the WKPP also shouldbenefit people living in karstlands throughout the world, sincecarbonate terrains of this nature present a greater range ofpotential environmental problems than any other land form. Thesewater-filled cavities also provide natural laboratories and museumsfor scientific studies ranging from archaeology to zoology. Thus,the maze coursing beneath the Woodville Karst Plain holds many moremysteries awaiting to be unraveled.

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