BROOKSVILLE - The body of a diver was found Sunday in one of the underwater caves for which Hernando County is world renowned.

The search will resume today for the body of his diving partner at the formation known as the Eagle's Nest, near the coastal town of Bayport.

The body of John H. Robinson, Jr., 36, of St. Petersburg was found around 2 p.m. The search for his friend and diving partner Craig Simon, 44, of Spring Hill was called off Sunday night as bad weather broke.

"His tank was empty when they brought it up," said Hernando sheriff's spokesman Lt. Joe Paez.

Paez said that investigators did not think Robinson died from faulty equipment. Rather, he may have become disoriented inside the cave, or possibly had run out of air trying to help his diving partner.

Eagle's Nest, known for its wide, deep caverns, is one of Florida's most challenging underwater dive sites. Nearly 300 feet below ground and utterly dark, any mistake can be the last, divers say.

"If you get turned around, you could very easily go the wrong way for a distance," said Mike Poucher, a 44-year-old Ocala diver who helped with the rescue operation Sunday. "Given the depth, even a small mistake can be pretty unforgiving."

The two men went into the water at about 1 p.m. Saturday. Paez said a third friend, who was not identified, called for help at about 3:30 p.m. when the two did not surface.

Members of the Pasco and Citrus county underwater recovery teams searched the 70-degree waters Saturday, along with about a dozen volunteers.

Sunday afternoon, stony faced divers carried equipment to the murky pond that hides the entrance to the 280-foot deep cave.

"There is a current down there and it could be that the other body may have drifted pretty far," said Paez.

Eagle's Nest is a magnet for those who enjoy the risky sport of cave diving. Divers from all over the world have trekked to the secluded woods about four miles off U.S. 19.

The spring-fed lake and its surrounding 720 acres were once off limits to divers, but last year enthusiasts persuaded the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to open it to experienced divers.

After passing through the small, murky pond, divers pass through a "chimney" that leads them down 70 feet to a large chamber, 150 feet wide and at least as deep. Divers call it "the ballroom." It's one of the biggest known caves in Florida. And to many, it's one of the world's prettiest.

"The visibility is clear. You can see the sun coming down through that chimney," said Michael Garman, 42, of Palm Harbor. "It's beautiful."

Garman, who is the vice president of the National Association for Cave Divers and a diver since 1990, said the Hernando County destination is not for beginners.

From the great hall, divers can move in two directions into 40-foot-wide passageways that stretch several thousand feet in each direction.

Inside the cave, away from the chimney, the cave is without natural light.

An 18-watt diving light provides up to 50 feet of visibility at Eagle's Nest. A white nylon rope strung up in the cave marks the way back to the chimney, Garman said.

"If the visibility gets low, for whatever reason, it could be hard to find your way," said Garman.

Most trips into the cave last around an hour, and as a rule, divers save about a third of their tanks of air in case of emergencies.

"If you lose track of the line, you spend time having to find the line," Garman said. "You're not sure which way to go. You get nervous. You're already almost 300 feet deep. The gas in your tank doesn't last very long - you get panicked."

Robinson Jr., an electrical engineer in the St. Petersburg office of Raytheon, was an avid diver who had been to Eagle's Nest before, said his father.

"He did this every weekend," John Robinson said. "He really knew his stuff. We don't know how this could have happened. Nobody else seems to know, either."

Born and raised on Long Island, Robinson Jr. learned to dive while earning his master's degree at the University of Florida in the early 1990s. After spending time working in California, he returned to Florida in 2001.

A studious, meticulous man, Robinson Jr. was even picked on for the obsessive way he maintained his diving gear, said his parents, who are now retired and living in Ocala.

"He was very careful about his equipment," said mother Joan Robinson. "He was a wonderful son, quiet and reserved."

Even though Robinson Jr. took diving seriously, it still scared his parents. On Sunday, after returning from a trip to see friends, the Robinsons received the news of their son's death from a sheriff's deputy.

"We always had to worry, but he was very skilled in it, so we figured, all right," John Robinson said. "We couldn't do much about it anyway. He loved it that much."

When reached by phone, a representative from Simon's family declined to comment.


Hernando cave claims diver
Recovery teams, working with volunteers, couldn't find the man's partner before bad weather ended the search.
Published June 14, 2004  by the St. Petersburg Times Online

Posted on Wed, Jun. 16, 2004
Authorities find body of missing Spring Hill cave diver

Associated Press

WEEKI WACHEE, Fla. - The body of a 44-year-old Spring Hill scuba diver has been found two days after the body of his diving partner was located.

A diver found Craig Simon's body on Tuesday about 290 feet below Eagle's Nest sinkhole. Divers had made about a half-dozen dives searching for Simon after the recovery on Sunday of his diving partner, John H. Robinson Jr., of St. Petersburg. Simon's body was found tangled in a guide line.

"My first feeling was of relief," said diver Paul Heinerth, who discovered Simon's body. "I had personally told Craig's family I would find him. I just didn't want to come up and face them again."

Rescuers started searching for Robinson and Simon, both certified cave divers, late Saturday afternoon when a friend reported they had not surfaced from a dive that began about 1 p.m., Hernando County sheriff's officials said.

The underwater caves were banned to divers in 1999 but reopened last July at the urging of cave diving organizations. The caverns descend as deep as 300 feet.


Diver Drowns in Area Cave (Devils Ear)

By Heather Sorentrue/WCJB TV 20 News

A weekend diving accident claimed the life of a teacher. The Tallahassee man drowned on Saturday in an area cave while on a trip with three of his friends.

Gilchrist County Sheriff's investigators came out to the Devil's Ear cave right around 2 AM on Saturday morning. They say Brian Tindale of Tallahassee was with a few friends but was the only one of them cave diving in the dark early morning hours.

Investigators say Tindale was a certified open water diver, but they've found nothing to indicate he was certified for cave diving. A local diving instructor says a lack of training is the number one killer of people diving in caves.

"It's incredibly easy to die, unfortunately," says Diving Instructor Larry Greene, "What kills people going into these caves is just making mistakes, not being trained for what they're doing. So someone who is trained to go in there, they have more controls of the variables that effect their lives."

Sheriff David Turner says Tindale's friends started getting worried after he went diving and did not resurface quickly.

"He had went down 2 or 3 times and upon his last time resurfacing he had told them that he had just a few minutes of air left in his tanks and he would not be down that long," says Turner.

As the minutes passed, investigators say Tindale's friends called for help. A Ginnie Springs dive instructor went down to the Devil's Er cave entrance and recovered Tindale's body. A diving expert says darkness may have contributed to the victim's trouble and eventual death.

"It makes a lot of difference. When they go in an overhead environment and there's no light, it's very easy to become disoriented and lose what direction you came in from," says Green.

Sheriff's investigators also tell us several witnesses say they saw the men drinking.

The Gilchrist County Sheriff's Office is waiting on a report from the Medical Examiner's Office to determine whether alcohol played a part in Tindale's death.

Links to news:
Diver drowns in Devil's Ear 8/2004
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Protecting Florida Springs
Florida Springs DVD- Miami Herald
Land use around Ichetucknee River
Florida Springs News
FDEP rediscovers springs