I join two friends, whose skills far exceed my own, on a dive expedition to dive I have never heard of before.
40 Fathoms Grotto.
I am tentative because the dive skills of my usual dive buddy, my wife Maureen, are similar to my own. Yet her back is ailing and she will be unable to join me on the dive. In addition, “40 fathoms” seems like a sinkhole that is deeper than my skill range.
So, like a real man, I suck up my gut and head off to dive with divers who are probably quite comfortable diving 200 feet (to my comfort limit of about 130 feet). Will they casually take me down to 190 feet? Do the dive lights that must accompany us mean that we will drop into the deep, dark depths of the bowels of the earth?
We drive south to Ocala on I-75 and head due west from that city. We find ourselves driving through the delightfully rolling, well-manicured hills of some of the best horse country in the nation.
In the middle of a region where the race horse is king, we arrive at the 8-acre 40 Fathom Grotto, a sinkhole with a maximum depth of 240 feet. The sinkhole is a deep, lush depression ringed with vegetation. The surface of the pool commonly contains a fair amount of duckweed that is ushered to the sides of the pool by an underwater bubbler.
The Grotto was discovered as a dive site by Hal Watts and Bob Brown in 1962.
We gear up at the picnic tables next to the wooded parking area, and gingerly descend down a somewhat lengthy (70-foot) flight of wooden stairs to wooden docks, where entrance to the Grotto is made by divers. The docks are well-equipped with facilities to easily complete gearing up and entering the water.
After a brief buoyancy check and an extremely thorough review of signals and dive plan, I deflate my BC for a descent with my two dive buddies. We descend to a metal platform 15 feet down, and the leader of our dive then does a rather rapid descent into the black void below us.
Immediately, I notice that my descent is a rather rapid plummet.
I’m breathing quite strongly—almost gasping—because I’m not used to such a quick descent. In addition, I recall my last deep water dive in a central Florida sink (Paradise Springs), where I started hyperventilating. Also adding to my anxiety, besides the mysteriousness of a dive I have never done before, is that a day before, I had read in a scuba magazine about two young divers who recklessly decided to exceed their training by diving to a 250-foot depth. One of them does not make it, as he is over-weighted, and was probably suffering from too much narcosis to be able to arrest his descent. His body is never found.
Would I be a casualty of the same fate??
My two buddies ask me if I am okay. I signal with my hand that I am “so-so”. Quickly, I point to my weight belt. The dive leader immediately signals me to head up to the platform we had just left, where I remove a few pounds of weight.
I’m back to normal. Relaxed. Breathing calmly.
We descend again. Visibility is not bad, but when we are a distance from the walls of the sinkhole, there are no features to get a bearing with, as the dark waters make the walls vanish. I cling unusually close, like a beginner, to the dive leader.
40 Fathoms is a fascinating dive…in a bizarre sort of way. Suspended by cables within the grotto is a veritable menagerie of antique vehicles. At about 40-50 feet, one finds a motorcycle and towsub. At about 100 feet, there is a ghostly 1965 Corvette, a 1955 Chevy, and a 1962 Pontiac. Deeper still are a 1960 Falcon and Chevy Nova, a 1937 Chevy, a Cabin Cruiser, a Chevy van, a 1928 Chrysler, a 1953 Dodge, a 1962 Corvair, a 1962 Oldsmobile, and a VW bug.
Interspersed along the walls of the grotto are 54 million year old Sea Biscuits and Sand Dollars.
At depth, the pool slowly opens up into a room of about 200 feet by 400 feet. Because the Grotto lacks a current, it is easy to hover and casually observe the limestone walls that form the chimney of the Grotto.
Dives at the Grotto are only allowed when led by a dive master/guide.