Hart Springs Opens to Cave Diving Again

Gainesville Sun – June 10, 2004

Hart Springs – More than two dozen volunteers – cave divers and dry cavers, Boy Scouts from Clermont and park personnel – spent a weekend unclogging the main spring at Hart Springs County Park.

This restored the spring to clear blue water with a strong boil. And because of the volunteers’ work, after five years of being illegal, there will once again be cave diving at Hart Springs on a guided basis.

The Hart Springs basin, which is fed by the cool, crystal clear waters of the Floridan Aquifer, has become one of Gilchrist County’s favorite swimming holes. Unfortunately, it was loved a little too much.

Over the past several years, improvements have been made to the area, including sand brought in and spread around the edge of the spring basin, which has created an inviting beach for swimmers and sunbathers. The park’s visitors have enthusiastically responded by coming here by the hundreds every weekend in the summer.

Some of that sand was pulled down into the main spring vent when the springs reverse flow during river floods. In addition, swimmers’ activities have caused some of that sand to fall into the spring vent, which caused the flow to be blocked.

Years ago, a retaining wall with a metal reinforcing bar collapsed into the main spring and down into the vent opening. In combination, the concrete wall and excess sand completely blocked off the flow of water through the main spring vent. Only a lesser amount of water was able to enter the spring basin via a smaller, satellite vent further downstream.

Enter the Florida caving community. Florida cavers have long made their restoration services available to the state of Florida, various counties and private landowners. Cavers have cleaned out numerous trashed-filled or silted-in cave entrances, springs and sinkholes in Florida and elsewhere.

For instance, Florida cavers built a stairway and platform at the edge of Peacock Spring and Orange Grove Sink at Peacock Springs State Park to reduce erosion.

More recently, they cleaned over a ton of trash from Vampire Sink in High Springs and a trash-filled sinkhole near Manatee Springs.

Amos Philmon, Hart Springs County Park manager, contacted well-known Florida cavers Cynthia Butler and Brian Williams to discuss the spring vent problem. The cavers readily volunteered to donate time and manpower to staff a restoration effort at the spring

Philmon was able to obtain a grant from the Suwannee River Water Management District to pay for the use of a hydraulic dredge pump, and the cavers provided divers and surface support to remove the sand from the spring vent and to remove the pieces of the old concrete wall.

The pump was used to remove more than 6 feet of sand and debris from the spring head. They also removed several tons of rock and old concrete by using lift bags attached to wire baskets. Surface support from the dry cavers and the Boy Scouts helped get these rocks up and out of the spring area. Divers were in the water in teams of four all day Saturday and Sunday, working up to 10 hours each day.

By Saturday afternoon, volunteers had removed enough debris to allow flow to resume from the spring head. By Sunday afternoon, the basin was running again with clear blue water and a good boil on the surface.

The spring has not had a boil for over six years. Kids were swimming and enjoying the beautiful new area by the end of the weekend.

Cave-diving ban is overturned

Another objective of the cleanup was to show Gilchrist County how much cave divers can be helpful in volunteer efforts to restore and maintain the springs that they love to cave-dive in.

Cave-diving was prohibited in Gilchrist County more than five years ago because of liability concerns. Butler has since been working on a proposal to overturn the law. In fact, she had to have a special two-day injunction just to allow the Hart Springs work to take place.

After that weekend, Butler, Philmon, Pete Butt, Rob Anderson and others attended a Gilchrist County Commission meeting and presented them with a plan to rescind the cave-diving law and to allow for Hart Springs to return to a guided dive system. The commission voted 4-1 to overturn the law.

A guided system will help bring a year-round source of revenue to the park. The guides will be on a volunteer basis and will not receive pay for their services. Also, the guides will spend time each month maintaining the trails, parking areas and springs.

The guide system will help to protect the fragile nature of the cave system. There will be a Web site available soon with information on requirements to dive this system.

All divers will go through the guide system and the park will not incur any additional training or expense to allow the dives. In addition, all divers will be expected to sign release waivers and abide by all park rules.