By George Irvine, october 26th 2002


When I logged this dive in my book, I wrote, "this might be my last cave dive". It was my 77th cave dive, but someplace up near my 1000th "tek" dive, and I was still scared cave diving. Up to this point, I was always overwhelmed with joy at making it out of a cave alive, and empathized with Rob Palmer's mention of the "grass always looking greener and the sky more blue" after each dive in his "Blue Holes of the Bahamas" book, a story of exploration and adventure which describes accurately why we keep coming back.

I had only been a minor WKPP support diver up to this point. My instructor, who was also Director of the WKPP, extended my time to getting a cave card out for a full year, and I had received that card from him on the plane down to Mexico on the way to do some diving in a system that I had been exploring with some other WKPP divers. Lamar English had taken me under his wing immediately after I started the initial cave class, and I had found Jarrod Jablsonski right away, so I had hit the ground running and was averaging about two cave dives per week.

This day was to be my first support dive of any distinction in the WKPP. Parker and Bill Gavin were to do a dive to the end of Indian Springs to try extending that cave out past where Exley had left off in his exploration in a lead Gavin had spotted on an earlier dive. The system had been down for months, and was now finally diveable. Parker had basically invited all his friends to come dive, and made up dives for us that were really unnecessary, but he wanted to get the team moving again. Lamar English and I were to put in the deep deco bottles and ride out a ways to mark unexplored leads. Bill Main and his dive partner were to put in the intermediate bottles and do the same behind us. Everyone else was supporting on land and in the basin, or just doing a dive.

Right from the start , things went strangely. Parker appeared distracted, and was not feeling well. Most of the more experienced WKPP divers were all sick and in street clothes, so could not dive and were running the surface, so I offered to do the dive in Parker's place. Parker said, "Don't you think that would be a bit much to bite off right now?". His stages were not all the way full, and he had a 3x Tekna scooter (Gavin had a Gavin). I offered my full bottles and more powerful scooter. He said, "No, it's too late". He then asked me for the keys to my car. I had a built in phone , and a month later when I got the phone bill, I saw he had phoned his house. That was November 17, 1991 - I don't need to look at my log to remember that. His wife later told me that he called her to tell her he loved her.

I had mixed the backgas for both Lamar and myself, but had done so based on the wrong depth - we did not know the cave went deeper than 150. We dropped down to 110 feet and clipped off deco bottles for Parker and Bill,
then took off upstream. Bill Main and his partner entered a few minutes later. Behind us, Main had called his dive about 1200 feet in and turned. Lamar and I rounded a corner about 3500 feet in and the depth crossed 150. I looked at my gauge when I had to clear my ears, and let off the trigger. I saw Lamar's blades stop spinning at the same moment. We were floating there , looking at the white tunnel in front of us. I reached for my wetnotes, try to figure out how I was going to tell Lamar that the analysis had come out two points over spec and that we had to turn - it was always me who weenied on the long dives he liked to do, but he turned to me with the scariest look in his eyes I have ever seen, and took my notes from me. He wrote, "Bubba, we are a little deep for this mix", and I was off the hook, but the look sent chills through me. Now I was scared, but I did not know why.

We turned and scootered back towards the entrance, and came across Bill Gavin and Parker nearing the stage drop. Gavin was really something to see in the water, so we stopped about 75 feet away and turned to watch them make the switch. Gavin floated methodically and executed the perfect drop and switch. Parker turned back and scootered a few feet towards me, let go of his scooter, switched his light to his right hand, held his left hand out to the side in an "OK" signal and shined the light on his hand. I returned the signal. He then went back to where Gavin was waiting and dropped his stage.

Lamar and I continued out, but never saw Bill Main - he must have turned right before we reached him. At the upstream/downstream T, Lamar stopped and checked his gas, pointed downstream and gave me the "little bit" signal. I checked my gas and gave him the "OK" signal. Again he suddenly stopped and that look came back, only this time he showed me the thumb. Now I was scared again. We scootered back to the restriction and moved through. I was felling a lot better now, we were out of the cave. I checked Parker and Bill's bottles - everything ok - and we started moving up to where Bill Main and his partner were decompressing above us.

At fifty feet, my computer wanted some unrealistic deco, so I took it off, strapped it to my scooter, and dropped the scooter to the floor below. It had been about 4 minutes since we cleared the restriction. Suddenly , everything cut loose. The water went rushing past us from above and the cavern blitzed in an underwater sandstorm. Bill Main and I both went instinctively to the ceiling to try to recapture what we thought was my runaway scooter - we both figured it had to be the scooter trashing the place and blowing the water on us from above. We could not see it sitting below us peacefully on the floor. What was really happening was that the water was rushing in from holes in the ceiling above, pulling sand and silt in with it, and in from the entrance to the cavern. What we did not know is that someplace in the system an aquaclude had cut loose turning the cave into a violent syphon which lowered the water level in the basin by a full foot and pulled whitewater rapids backwards up the spring run. The rushing water pulled sand and debris over the restriction at the entrance of the
cave and the movement suddenly stopped. All of the silt and sand water had been sucked into the cave, so amazingly we were sitting in clear water again.

I dropped down to my scooter , still not believing it was not responsible, only to find it untouched. I noticed that the deco stop was gone from the screen - it had been four minutes that the cave flowed backwards. None of us got it. Nobody on the surface got it. Nobody came in to check on us. This would be a day that ended the easy going "volunteer" WKPP of old, if it did not end it for ever. In fact, that day all but four of us quit the Project and most quit cave diving for good.

Gradually, the cavern started silting out again. Lamar and I were getting uncomfortable about it, but we still did not know why. Bill Main and his partner had already long gotten out. We were at 20 feet. I decided to check on Parker and Bill, so I dove back down to 110 feet. Everything appeared the same, but I did not go far enough to see the restriction, which was no longer there. The bottles were untouched in the same place I had put them , clipped to the line. I began wondering about the length of the dive relative to the gas supply, but these guys were the pros. I came back up to Lamar, and did not see the support divers come past me in the silted out cavern, but figured they must be there and must be silting it out. What was really happening was that the cave had blown the restriction back open again, and the silt cloud inside was flowing out. Lamar and I surfaced.

Lamar was right up against me on the surface, and he had that look again. We were out of earshot of everyone. He asked me if I saw Parker and Bill went I had gone back down. I said "no, their bottles are still there". He floated there thinking . Then the support divers popped up by the dock. Steve Irving asked them if everything was OK. One said, yes. Steve said, "Did you see them both, where are they?". One said , "I saw Bill". the other said, "I saw Parker, he waved at me". The other said, "That was not Parker, that was me".

Lamar got real close to me and whispered, "Bubba, something is not right. I am going to go check". He dropped down, and reappeared about two minutes later, again whispering, "Parker is screwed I found his tanks on the line with his light on and he and Bill are not there". I deflated my wings and dropped down, scootering down the now blacked out cavern to 110 feet. I passed one intermediate bottle clipped to the line and then I saw one deep bottle still clipped to the line.

I clipped in with my spool and hit the inflator, going to the ceiling. I kept trying to remember what that cavern had looked like, but I had never really taken a good look. I was amazed at how far up it went. I then started sweeping in the zero vis, banging along the ceiling of the cavern. I ran smack into Gavin. I could not tell who it was at first, and was feeling all over him to see if he was alive. He did not move, but I could hear him breathing. I found his pressure gauge and held it up to my mask - it read zero. I grabbed his stage gauge and saw he had gas, He was on his shallow bottle. He had used the deep bottle and jettisoned it apparently, and was still sitting on the ceiling, off the line, silted out on the second bottle.

He passed me a little tiny slate. I could not read it. I pressed it up to my mask and shined my light at the side of the clear silicone skirt -
"Parker is dead". I felt like my heart stopped. I kept holding the slate to my mask. I woke back up - I had to get Gavin to some gas. I asked him if he knew where his oxygen was. He said yes. I did not believe him. I don't think he cared where it was. I realized he was not in a good space. I could not get him to move. I tied my reel to him, then ran it to the trough, then out and to the surface , over to the dock and tied it off to a piling. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked down at me from the dock. I tied to get myself together to speak.

"Parker is dead", I could hardly get the words out. Bill Main started pacing back and forth. He said, "That is not supposed to happen". I said, "Bill, you have to go down and get Gavin - he won't move". I tied off to him. Just follow the line and get him up to the trough. Lamar went down my line and Bill had his tanks on in seconds. They followed the line to Gavin, moved him to the trough and sat there with him for nearly four hours. I never asked what went on, but I didn't have to and didn't want to know. Bill Gavin was beyond upset.

When I saw that Bill Main and Lamar were on it, I went back down the main line, tied in and began sweeping again. I did this nine times with stages and backgas until I ran out of gas. I could not find Parker. I forgot to decompress, and just got out when the gas was gone. I was sick. The cops were there and it seemed like 100 other people were streaming in. I remember Tara Tanaka showing up and a bunch of other cave divers, like they appeared by some magic call. Everyone kept asking me if he could be in an air pocket on the ceiling, and I kept telling them that the ceiling was well under water. I got sick of telling them that and went to my car and
called Alton. Alton loved Parker and so did I.

Bill Main and Sherwood Schile got in the car and drove over to tell Penny Parker, not the kind of thing you ever want to have to do, and they were the only ones among us who could do it that day. We told the cops we needed to go reload our gas and come back to look for Parker. We all went back to Steve Irving's house where the compressor was. Bill Gavin parked his van outside and sat there all night, while Carlyanne Johnson stayed with him. We went back down the next morning, and Gavin laid out the plan for clearing the restriction and bringing out Parker. Then the cops showed up and told us they had done it at 6:00 am. Parker had trained them to cave dive and do body recoveries. They did not want to leave him in there. Gavin and the rest then got ready to go in and retrieve all the gear that was behind the restriction. I did not want to get back in the water for gear, even with the light duty Gavin assigned to me. I got in my car and left for Ft Lauderdale. I cried all the way to Perry. I don't know whether it was because of Parker, or because four more minutes later would have meant all of us.

Gavin later told me that he and Parker had reached where the restriction was supposed to be and the line just disappeared under the sand, and that the main tunnel was totally blacked out. Parker's scooter had failed and Bill was towing him. He got Parker to wait while he scootered back to the upstream/downstream T to see if maybe he had gone the wrong way. Imagine what was going through the mind of an 18 year veteran cave diver diving in a place he knew like his own house. He came back to the restriction. For 45 minutes they tried to find a way out, tying in their spools to where the line was buried and searching forward. Gavin told me they were down to almost no gas, and he knew they were going to die. He said he did not want to see Parker die so he moved over to die by himself. At that moment, they
felt the water flowing, and followed it. Parker had taken his tanks off and was dragging them behind him. Gavin left his on. Both had hit the entrance as it blew open with less than 100 psi in their tanks. Without his backtanks for weight, Parker must have been struggling to stay down, used the last of his gas and blacked out. The ceiling on the other side of the restriction is at least 30 feet above the floor, and he could not hold on . Gavin made it the few feet to his bottle and got the deco gas just as he ran out. Gavin told me that knowing you are going to die is the most desperate feeling there is. He said you don't ever want that to experience that. All of our worst fears in cave diving demonstrated.

I called Jarrod. He said, "you have to get back in the water". I did not even want to take a shower, let alone go cave diving. A few weeks went by, and Jarrod told me to come up to High Springs and he would go diving with me. I called Lamar, and got him to meet us at Ginnie. We were both freaked, but JJ stayed real calm with us. JJ told me, "We'll just do an easy dive, you have to get back in". We geared up, and then Lamar stopped, "I just can't dive right now", so JJ repeated to me, "you have to get back in the water", so I went. He started out real slow and easy, attentive as always, no stress. The cave was clear and beautiful. It was night and nobody was there. We dropped our stage at the Hinkle and dove all over the back of the cave, in ever squirrelly, crazy place JJ knew, and came back out about
90 minutes later with one of the best cave dives I had ever done. JJ got me back.

A couple of months later I called Bill Gavin and got him to go to Mexico with me. Parker had told him he needed to see the stuff that we had seen, so we took a couple of weeks and did the tour. By the end of the trip, Gavin was back and talking about moving to Mexico, but that experience never let him alone. In the film NHK made about the WKPP, in an interview with Gavin, he said, "A day has not passed that I have not thought about Parker".