Cave divers caught between danger, thrill

Sunday, September 2, 2001

HIGH SPRINGS, Fla. -- What draws scuba divers to the caves around Florida's freshwater springs, they say, is the "Star Trek Syndrome" -- discovering a majestic chamber where no man has gone before.

Steve Berman knew the feeling.

As an experienced diver, he helped map the famous Devil's Eye cave system, which runs for more than 30,000 feet underneath the Santa Fe River in north-central Florida. As an instructor, he knew the dangers and taught new divers that the caves can kill.

Even with his experience, the 40-year-old Berman drowned May 7 as he explored the Devil's Eye. His body was found 150 feet from a fresh air tank.

Florida averages about a half-dozen cave diving deaths every year.

"I'm not sure anybody really knows what happened. But somebody with that much experience, they just don't run out of air," said Michael Poucher, vice president of the National Speleological Society-Cave Diving Section.

As the number of cave diving deaths rose nationwide during the 1970s, as scuba diving became more affordable, officials in Florida considered banning the sport. In 1973, Poucher's group formed a cave diving section, which worked with the National Association for Cave Diving to teach divers about the dangers of exploring caves.

Divers are required to pass an extensive course before they can be certified as cave-ready.

Divers even must learn how to properly kick their swim fins. Cave floors are often covered with fine silt, and if a diver thrashes about, that silt billows up into a blinding cloud. Bodies are often found just a few feet from an exit.

But experienced cave divers now fear that their safety efforts are going unheeded. Too often, they say, a diver certified for open waters -- but not caves -- will get into trouble underground. Their training on the seas is useless in the pitch-black, confined environment.

Inadequate training

Larry Green, an instructor who runs Eagle's Nest Technical Divers in High Springs, said: "They can be instructors with patches from shoulder to wrist, but if they haven't had the training, they won't understand the variables."

But inadequate training doesn't explain how someone as well-trained as Berman could get himself into a life-threatening situation.

"Unfortunately, there's a lot of speculation going on of what happened. I don't think we'll ever know exactly what happened." Green said.

Green said when an experienced diver dies, it is for one of three reasons: going too deep, not using a guideline or not preserving enough air.

Perhaps the question of how Berman died is less important than why he was compelled to plumb the watery depths of Devil's Eye. The answer to that may come from Berman himself. On the Web site of the NSS-CDS, where his death was first announced to his friends and peers, is a picture of Berman.

He has tousled dark hair and a small smile on his face. He's also wearing a white T-shirt that reads in large letters: "Diving Is Life."

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