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1987 Wakulla Springs Expedition

Departure Date: October 24, 1987

Duration: 70 days

Destination: Wakulla Springs, Florida

Number of Personnel: 20

Expedition Leader: Bill Stone (USA)

Exploration Team: Paul Heinerth (USA), Tom Morris (USA), Sergio Zambrano (Mexico), Paul Deloach (USA), Mary Ellen Eckhoff (USA), Brad Pecel (USA), Sheck Exley (USA), Angel Soto (Mexico), Pat Wiedeman (USA), Wes Skiles (USA), Gavin Newman (UK), Noel Sloan (USA), Mandy Dickinson (UK), Dale Sweet (USA), Peter Scoones (UK), Rob Parker (UK), Chris Brown (USA), Leo Dickinson (UK), Georgette Douwma (UK), Clark Pitcairn (USA), Tara Tanaka (USA)

Objectives: In the fall of 1986 the State of Florida acquired Wakulla Springs from the estate of financier Edward Ball, who had owned the land for some 50 years while he built the industrial empire that included the St. Joe Paper Company. Prior to 1987 only two groups had been legally permitted to explore inside the spring: a team led by Wally Jenkins and Gary Salsman during the late 1950's, and a three person team consisting of Paul DeLoach, Mary Ellen Eckhoff, and John Zumrick in 1981. The former reached a distance of some 200 meters from the entrance; the latter approximately 400m. As of October 1987, the cave was believed to consist of a single, massive tunnel that kept on going at great depth. A proposal was submitted to the State of Florida in the fall of 1986 by Bill Stone to continue exploration work, to test a new computer controlled life support system (the Cis-Lunar MK1 rebreather), and to carry out detailed studies of the biology, hydrology, and geology of Wakulla Springs. Unlike the caves in southern Mexico, Wakulla Spring was completely underwater, and thus all exploration would involve cave diving. The impediments to exploration, however, were, and are, quite severe: the main tunnels inside Wakulla lie under more than 90 meters of water. Thus, all of the traditional maladies of deep diving were at issue: narcosis, oxygen toxicity, and extreme decompression penalties for brief forays inside the cave. The development of effective means to deal with these problems was the primary task confronting the expedition.

Accomplishments: During the 10 months following the receipt of the permit in December 1996 and the arrival of the team at Wakulla in October of 1987, an unusual piece of infrastructure began to take shape. The rough designs for a portable underwater habitat that could house six returning divers (two teams of three) were first sketched out over Christmas 1996. In May of 1987 meetings held with Sippel Company, a structural fabrication firm in Pittsburgh, led to significantly simplified designs that revolved around 3-meter diameter hemispherical living quarters, open at its base, and supported by some nine tons of lead ballast. A generous grant from Rolex USA at end of June set the endeavor in motion, and by October all of the parts began to arrive at Wakulla. Within 10 days the habitat, looking like a giant ice cream cone, was established in Wakulla basin. It could be manually taken down to 23m depth (using an internal chain hoist) and allowed to return gradually to the surface as decompression required.

Exploration teams, first consisting of Sheck Exley and Paul DeLoach and Wes Skiles and Clark Pitcairn, began exploring new ground in Wakulla. Exley and DeLoach rapidly explored the main tunnel, now called A-Tunnel and averaging 40 meters wide by 12, to 860 meters penetration in two back-to-back dives using Aqua Zepp DPVs and just two stage bottles each. Most team members expected them to continue their pace of 400+ meters of further exploration per dive. However, hard rains in early November vastly reduced the visibility in A-Tunnel to where further progress was dangerous. About this same time a curious phenomenon was noticed: deeper artesian side tunnels fed into the main tunnel and were running clear. The first of these tunnels (B and C) were located at 300 meters from the entrance on the east side of the main tunnel. The larger of the two, C-Tunnel, headed southeast and was tackled initially by Skiles and Pitcairn and ultimately was pushed to 818m by Skiles, DeLoach, and Exley. In the meantime, a third mapping crew, consisting of Rob Parker and Brad Pecel, began exploring B-Tunnel. Later, when Exley and DeLoach turned their efforts to D-Tunnel (leading north off A-Tunnel at 700 meters from the entrance) Skiles joined the B-Tunnel team. These three discovered the Monolith Room and pushed onward to 700m penetration towards the east. When Parker returned to England, the B-Tunnel team re-formed with Skiles, Tom Morris, and Paul Heinerth. These three pushed out to 1273m in B-Tunnel on December 4th, marking the longest penetration of the project. Exley and DeLoach, meanwhile, pushed D-Tunnel 1042 meters to the north of A-Tunnel where it terminated in a high dome. This dome is presently the closest known location to the downstream tunnel in Sally Ward Spring, also located on park property. A total of 3300 meters of tunnels comprising seven distinct tunnels were explored and surveyed during the Wakulla 1 project.

Another significant event that took place during the expedition was the testing of the Cis-Lunar MK1 rebreather. This 90-kilogram device was about the size of a small desk. But it contained some revolutionary thinking in that each of its twin rebreathers were controlled by redundant onboard computers (4 total). Furthermore, its dual gas supplies (both diluent and oxygen) were able to be cross-routed to the different rebreathers. It was also the first operational rebreather to employ hydrophobic exclusion systems for the elimination of canister flooding and it used lithium hydroxide as the carbon dioxide removal agent. The highlight of the test program was a 24-hour continuous underwater mission performed by Bill Stone on December 3rd and 4th using only the MK1. Because only one half of the rig had been used for the entire day underwater, the range of the MK1 was, in fact, 48 hours and was independent of depth. This ungainly prototype led immediately to new ideas for more compact systems which, five generations later as the MK5P, will be returning to Wakulla in 1998.

A documentary film, shot by producer Leo Dickinson, aired on HTV/ITV in Britain in August 1988 and later in the U.S. on National Geographic Explorer. A book was also written on the project (see references below).

Maps: (will open in another window)
    1987 Wakulla Plan (1.4MB)
    1987 Wakulla Profile (738KB)
    1987 Wakulla Plan 2 (797KB)
    1987 Sally Ward Plan (599KB)
    1987 Sally Ward Profile (612KB)

Photo Gallery

Dickinson, L., Anything is Possible, Jonathan Cape, Thirty-Two Bedford Square, London, England, WC1B 3SG, ISBN-0-224-02826-x. Three chapters: "The Fountain of Youth," (pp. 173-187); "Monsters of the Deep," (pp. 188-203); and "More People Have Been to the Moon," (pp. 204-220).

Stone, W. C., Ed. The Wakulla Springs Project, published by the U.S. Deep Caving Team, Inc., January 1989, ISBN-0-9621785-0-0, Library of Congress Card Number 88-051320. 220 pages, hardbound.

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