Peering down at the surface of Orange Grove Sink, you might wonder why anyone would ever consider taking a leap of faith into the primordial soup of this north Florida swampland. On a good day you have to reckon with the messy green duckweed; on others, you have to do it eye to eye with a menacing alligator.
Before the entry steps were built, I would jokingly add to the predive stress by telling first-timers they’d have to make a giant stride leap off the edge of the sheer 15-foot limestone cliff. After the gasps of horror and nervous laughter subsided, I’d point out the muddy path painstakingly worn between the rocks and cypress tree roots. These days, an overbuilt stair-and-ramp structure makes the entry safe and easy, but the peering eyes of the toothy reptile on the far side of the pond guarantee tension still hangs in the air.
Orange Grove Sink is one of two major springs in Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park — which boasts an additional nine sinkholes and springs, and a long slough, meandering down to the famed Suwannee River. With over 38,000 feet of explored passage, Peacock offers divers the chance to explore one of the longest underwater cave systems in the United States.
In 1875, Dr. John Calvin Peacock purchased the property, where he raised cattle and religious fervor in church services held in his home. This tract of land, located within the buckle of the southern Bible Belt, boasts an early connection with Christianity and missionary work. One spring, appropriately named Baptizing Spring, was the site of a Timmucuan Indian village, and later a thriving Spanish mission. Natives and immigrants were dunked in the clear water as they pledged their life to Christ.
The Nature Conservancy purchased Peacock’s 250-acre ranch to create the park, and in 2006 the Trust for Public Land expanded the territory to encompass an additional 481 acres. In 2011, the park name was appended, to honor the late Wes Skiles, a cave-diving filmmaker and springs’ advocate who worked tirelessly to protect Florida’s water resources.
Descending through the duckweed, I pause for a moment to marvel at the cloud of minnows consuming the tiny green leaves and hairlike roots floating on the surface. A veil of green confetti rains down to the depths, catching the beams of light penetrating through the swampy mess above.
My buddy Alex hacks through his second stage, dislodging the weedy protein from the exhaust valve before tying his primary reel to a twisted tangle of tree roots. Above us, the white belly of the alligator lingers on the edge of the sink. Alex takes one last look before spooling out his line into the cave. Below us, the Lower Orange Grove cavern yields to a 180-foot-deep cave passage, accessible only to sidemounters. Today, we’re attempting the Grand Traverse, and we hope to finish our dive at Peacock One, some 4,671 feet away through the mazelike system.
Entering the Upper Orange Grove Tunnel we pass a memorial stone, placed to remember a team of divers that did not make it out of the cave. To ensure divers are aware of the danger, a brightly colored National Association of Cave Divers stop sign warns cavern and other divers not to proceed beyond this point.
The clear water is incredibly alluring to an untrained eye. Although the annual number of cave-diving accidents has decreased over the years, the leading cause of fatalities is still due to divers going beyond their level of training and experience — more than 600 people have perished in caves around the world, and this site is no stranger to tragedy. As recently as last year, a woman with entry-level, partial cave training died attempting a complex dive plan that was beyond her background and abilities. Caves can be deceptively easy places to enter and decidedly easy places to die — they carry no bias for age, gender or lengthy dive logs, and the best prevention is good training and solid experience, with a careful eye to good risk management.