Diver experienced Silver Springs as few have during mapping expeditions
Published: Saturday, September 7, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 6, 2013 at 7:36 p.m.
Editor's note: This is another in a periodic series about the people whose lives are as much a part of the Silver Springs tradition as the crystal waters that bubble up from the earth.
While most people are content to view the pristine waters of Silver Springs from a riverbank or while riding inside a glass-bottom boat, Eric Hutcheson wanted a closer look at the phenomenon beneath the surface. So, in 1993, Hutcheson, a professional underwater cartographer, donned his scuba gear and dove into the world's largest artesian spring.
Among his tools were a plastic writing pad and a No. 2 pencil, plus a roll of nylon string to measure distances and help him find his way out.
Funded by Florida Leisure Acquisition Corp., which owned Silver Springs at the time, the initial expedition consisted of six men, with Hutcheson as the head.
“They funded me to do exactly what I love to do,” Hutcheson said. “They pulled out the red carpet so we could explore and map where nobody ever did before. All those underwater caves are like Mother Nature's artwork of the water sculpting through the limestone. There are layers and layers of Florida's sea bottom. It's a time capsule, and you are the first person to see it undisturbed.”
The Silver Springs system consists of at least 16 springs, with the main one known as Mammoth Spring. Many of the cave openings are too narrow for most men, especially when loaded down with a bulky life support system. For Hutcheson, however, it was a piece of cake. During his early dives, he was 30 years old, 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighed only 145 pounds. When confronted with a narrow opening, he simply removed his scuba tank and held it in front of him.
Hutcheson's hand-picked team included lead diver Ken Peakman, a longtime friend who had introduced him to sinkhole diving when they were teenagers.
“My specialty was to get through these really tight areas and continue exploring,” Hutcheson said. “Ken would wait when I went beyond a certain area. There's an intimacy with who you're doing underwater exploring. It was like a safety blanket for me, mentally.”
Others before Hutcheson had attempted early mappings of the main spring and didn't get far.
More than 50 years ago, former Silver Springs diver Jack McEarchern, with only a scuba tank and no lighting or mapping equipment, worked his way down about 20 feet to what he labeled “the fifth room.” Now 83, McEarchern recalled with clarity the maze of passages inside the main spring. Some were only partially open.
“It didn't have a tunnel built so I could go in,” McEarchern said. “I started moving rocks and dirt with my hands and went in as far as I could see. The sand would go off behind me, so I knew which way to go to get out. One time, I saw a piece of ivory tusk at the bottom of a little shaft the size of a 55-gallon barrel and seven feet down. I took my tank off and held it over my head. When I got down there and looked up and saw these rocks, I knew if one of them came loose it would have buried me right there, and I would have been one of them fossils. I never went back, not in that hole.”
In an excerpt from Richard A. Martin's book “Eternal Spring,” longtime Silver Springs official photographer Bruce Mozert described the mystifying underwater scenes he encountered during his career.
“On cloudless days, when the sky overhead is a clear blue, the colors underwater take on a different quality — you might say a different color,” Mozert wrote. “The blue of the sky is reflected in everything beneath the surface ... Similarly, on very bright, sunny days, a yellow-gold is predominant; and on dark, stormy days, incredibly deep greens and blues take the ascendancy.”
Years later, when Hutcheson entered the main spring, he marveled at how the pure white limestone, with its bubbling fissures, instantly morphed to earth tones as the water flowed through porous rock inside the cave. On a cave bottom, Hutcheson's team discovered ancient fossils, wooly mammoth teeth and Indian artifacts. Though the exploration took his team through 2,263 feet of passages, they never reached the grand aquifer, and with good reason, Hutcheson said.
“I was trying to get there and we got really, really close,” he said. “This is exploring way beyond the envelope. Silver Springs is a dangerous place because of the nature of the geology and the high volume of water eroding its passages. You could get down there in front of this volume of fresh, pristine water pushing you forcibly. It can't be stopped. There's a lot of pressure from the water that is boiling out of the springs. The ceilings are unstable. As you're moving through, the rocks move and block passages, and it becomes unsafe, which is why I stopped the exploration.”
Even so, a lot of helpful data came out of Hutcheson's mapping of Silver Springs, said Scott Mitchell, director of the Silver River Museum, where some of Hutcheson's findings are on display.
“The value, I think, is that it helps us to understand the complexity of the Silver Springs cavern system and how it connects to the aquifer,” Mitchell said. “What Eric confirmed was that it wasn't just a single hole in the ground, but an entire system and dozens of springs.
“The mineral formations are clues inside a cavern that tell whether it's gone through periods of wet and dry,” Mitchell added. “Geologists and archaeologists can estimate how long it's actually been flowing and how humans have used the spring, whether they were living beside it or down inside it when it was dry. In caverns where the ceiling has come down, they've also been able to document how stable the cave system is. It was the culmination of 12 months of exploration. Eric dove repeatedly into the heart of the main spring, more than 90 feet deep and more than 300 feet from the spring's mouth.”
Born in 1962 in Miami, Hutcheson attributes his mapping abilities to his grandfather, an architectural engineer who was involved in the early development of Miami.
As a youngster, Hutcheson was drawn to South Florida's tropical waters and flooded limerock pits where he played with his friends.
“We would swim and have a blast,” Hutcheson recalled. “For my first experience with caves, I was 9 years old looking into the Biscayne aquifer. It was my first taste that those things exist.”
In the late 1970s, Hutcheson's family moved to Ocala. That's when he met Ken Peakman, who introduced him to sinkhole diving. Whether they were dry or filled with water, the boys would work their way down to the water table.
“My mom would educate me, because we were just wild, young kids, and she would be worried,” Hutcheson said. “She showed me some articles of people who were doing it right. I joined the National Speleological Society and was introduced to people who became my mentors.”
Hutcheson's first professional project involved an exploration of Silver Glen Springs. Sanctioned by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the project was organized in 1989 by Bill Foote, owner of the Ocala Dive Center and a professional scuba diver. Foote selected Hutcheson as his lead diver.
“That launched my career. It was my first big break,” Hutcheson said. “I used all the artistry of my grandfather's work, and then other opportunities, big cave projects, came immediately.”
Since that initial dive, Hutcheson has been back to Silver Glen Springs multiple times. Over the last 25 years, Hutcheson has explored and mapped underwater caves in Florida, the Caribbean and in Mexico's Nohoch Nah Chich, the world's longest underwater cave system with more than 50 miles of passages. He assisted with lighting and other underwater projects for National Geographic magazine, contributed a chapter in “Aquiferious,” a book about Florida's springs by artist Margaret Ross Tolbert, and his art and cartography have been featured on the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and the Learning Channel. Hutcheson's work can be viewed at www.visionfromthecaves.com.
Tragically, Hutcheson's underwater ventures came to a halt following a motorcycle accident in 2000. He suffered multiple injuries, including a severely damaged sinus cavity. Since scuba diving was no longer an option, Hutcheson became involved in his family's business producing plaster architectural molds for high-end homes.
Then, in 2005, while on vacation with his wife, Sharon, and daughter, Erika, he went snorkeling in a tank at Discovery Cove in Orlando. When he reached 15 feet underwater, his sinuses popped.
“That was the first time that I could actually clear my ears and equalize the air pressure, which would allow me to dive again,” Hutcheson said. “This huge part of my life has come full circle and I'm out doing it again.”
For Hutcheson, one of the driving forces behind his work has been the preservation of the Floridan Aquifer.
“Silver Springs has taken a huge blow,” Hutcheson said. “It's lost more than half of its volume in the decade that was a huge development period. We're swimming in rainfall that fell 200 years ago. Today, it's been compromised. Silver Springs is not fed from one source. It's fed by sources from all over the place. The nitrate levels are high.”
Now that Hutcheson is diving again, he would like to do more exploring at Silver Springs. One of his concerns is that less-experienced divers also will want to try cave diving there.
“Exploring underwater caves to the limit is probably one of the most dangerous things a person can do,” Hutcheson said. “There's a lot of death in this kind of thing. I've lost dozens of colleagues and probably a handful of close friends.”
According to Foote, while snorkeling is permitted in the county's three springs areas, scuba diving is not. Foote is part of a group of scuba diving enthusiasts that includes local businessmen and members of law enforcement. He said they have outlined a plan to gain state approval to bring scuba diving back to Silver Springs, but there has to be some safety parameters.
“We're proposing, for the first year, especially, not having any open water students diving there,” Foote said. “Divers will have to be certified. They can't be learning how to dive.”