Cavern Diving Deep in an Old Florida Swamp

Buford Spring/Siphon Tops the List of Cavern Dives Anywhere in the World!
by David Miner

Deep in the Chassahowitzka swamp lies the cavern diver’s dream. A semicircular pool, with a run flowing further into the swamp, sits quietly providing a home for alligators, fish, turtles, and snakes. For thousands of years this little gem has gone unnoticed, adjusting to the changing environmental conditions and only answering to the heartbeat of the swamp. Today, it’s a cavern dive that can be equated to few others. It’s big, deep, and beautiful. But diving it requires an effort that few are willing to undertake. As the saying goes, “you have to pay to play,” and this is certainly true if you want to dive Buford!.

photo of Buford Spring deep in the Chassahowitzka Swamp courtesy of Karst Underwater Research

Chassahowitza is a territory of land that is government-managed under the control of the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area and the Chassahowitzka National wildlife Refuge. It is located on the west coast of Florida in Hernando County. This territory is open to the public and is very popular with local hunters, hikers, and cave divers. It’s also home to the notorious cave system Eagle’s Nest, which is a very deep and technical cave dive, where a number of lives have been lost over the years. The area is comprised of swampland, jeep trails, thick palmettos, beautiful woods with oak, cypress, and many other varieties of trees, and a limestone base that is perfect for the formation of caves, caverns, and sinkholes. Entering this area is like going back in time to a Florida that used to be with a rich canopy of trees, thick ground coverage of plants, ancient critters that roam about, and the swamp environment that makes it seem more like Jurassic Park than an area that is quickly fading away with new housing developments, strip malls, and parking lots. Luckily, this plot of land is protected, but the surrounding area is quickly encroaching.

Geologically, the northern and southern systems are similar as they are both composed of limestone.   They also share the same altitude and rainfall average per year.   Despite these similarities, the vegetation found in the south varies significantly from that of the north.   To the south of Playa del Carmen, where the larger submerged cave systems are located, one can tell just by looking at the trees that they are much older and bigger than the ones in the north.   But why?

Pulling off the highway and the bustle of cars, the road turns to white, chalky sand and rock, and we enter this magnificent area. A brief stop at the main entrance, which is nothing more than a sign, payment receptacle (fee required), and small pole barn, we throw a nod to the local hunters chatting it up, and then we’re off to find this magical cavern. The road is hard-packed sand and rock (in most places) as we head further into the swamp. At a fork in the road, we stay left where the road narrows and the swamp gets more evident. After traveling over three small wooden bridges, we stop at a cable-gated tramway, which was used in days past to transport logged trees out to the sandy road. This is as far as we can go by vehicle. The rest must all be done on foot as no vehicles are allowed to travel on the tramway.

Our excitement builds knowing that we’re close but also knowing the hard part is still to come. Getting to Buford is no small task, as we would soon be finding out.

We chose to dive single, steel 95 cubic-foot cylinders, as doubles aren’t really needed to do the dive and hiking doubles into a swamp is back-breaker. The water temperature averages 72 degrees Fahrenheit, like most springs, so we chose to dive 5mm wetsuits with hooded vests. We carried all other standard cavern/cave diving gear, such as a primary light and two backups and a safety reel.

The weather was great, a cool 70 degree F day, so suiting up was comfortable. Diving Buford in the middle of a Florida summer can be unbearable.

Swamp growth in a dry and not-so-muddy area

Hiking into the swamp with a tank on your back and in a full wetsuit is no joke. The tramway is a rough jeep trail that goes on for about 350+ yards that is sometimes wet and requires attention so as to not trip over one of the many Cypress knees (a portion of root from a Cypress tree) protruding from the ground. Tripping over a knee and impaling yourself on another is a sure way to ruin your day and maybe your life. The tramway is surrounded by swamp and ankle deep water and mud that we would soon be trudging through. (photo: )

At the end of the tramway, our real fun began. Stepping off the slightly elevated tramway and into the thick mud and ankle deep water slowed our progress incredibly. From the tramway, we new it was at another 75 yards or so to the water. Knowing the compass heading and following the orange blazes on the trees, we hiked, step by step through this amazingly beautiful area making sure to take notice to our surroundings, but also watching each step carefully to keep from falling down or sinking into a mud pool. Huge Cypress knees, thick Palmettos, root systems, and fallen debris challenged our progression, but eventually we sighted the pool and found our cavern of Eden.

Approaching the bank, the pool looked beautiful with the surrounding swamp reflecting back at us and the water appearing blue in color. With the bottom being comprised of dark leaves, mud, and branches, it was initially hard to tell how good the visibility would be, but with the water clarity looking good on top, we figured it would be spectacular in the cavern.

Hot, sweating, and a little muddy, we wasted no time in getting wet. Taking caution not to stir up the bottom too much, we gently scooted our way out to deeper water and found a perfectly placed fallen tree to sit on. With masks on, we peered down into the depths below, quickly seeing that visibility was going to be good. After a quick glance and nod to each other, we descended below the surface to the opening of this massive cavern. Popping through the opening, the walls peeled away and the floor plummeted into a huge room. Descending slowly, it all came into view more and more…we were in one of the largest water-filled caverns anywhere. Large breakdown, white limestone, vertical and gently slopping walls, and unlimited visibility created a picturesque scene.

Entering Buford Cavern by Steve Straatsma

The cavern dropped immediately to 30 feet deep. A 50-foot wall then dropped straight down to 80 feet deep, where huge breakdown boulders littered the area. The cavern then sloped to 140 feet deep with more huge boulders and an area of out-flowing water on the right side on the floor. Continuing on a bit further, the cavern continued to slope down to 165 feet deep, where most of the flow siphoned strongly into a low, non-passable restriction. At 140 feet, we could still see daylight blazing down through the entrance making for an unforgettable view. We covered our powerful HID lights, let our eyes adjust, and peered in amazement at just how much daylight really lit up the cavern. The cavern appeared to be at least 60+ feet wide and 140 feet tall with many amazing areas to check out. The dynamics of this cavern along with the variety of things to see gave us a dive time of 45 minutes, with about 10 minutes of decompression. We inspected every inch of this super-sized cavern before ascending.

Once on the surface and relaxing on our favorite tree, we could hardly say anything. The comments that did surface from our amazed state were, “huge,” “incredible,” “beautiful,” “what a dive.” We all new that we had just dove something special, something that few will ever see. After spending as much time as possible soaking in our surroundings and absorbing our dive, we climbed from the water and made the arduous hike back to our vehicle, once again to be hot, sweaty, and tired but having no pool of water to dive into. We packed the truck and headed for the entrance.

It’s hard to relate just how big and beautiful Buford really is. The dynamics of getting to the water and back, the adventure of it all, and being in place that time forgot, is an experience that we will never forget and hope to experience someday soon again. It is truly a masterful dive that demands precision, gracefulness, and an adventuresome spirit. Buford is tucked away from the modernizations and development of man; there are no walkways, docks, platforms, or stairs—it’s all natural, and we hope it remains that way forever.