Cave diving has to be the most dangerous extreme sport on the planet, and it claims the lives of about a dozen professional divers each year. That might not seem like many, but only a few thousand divers have the skill, experience and courage to venture into those mysterious caverns of the deep. A diver was famously killed just last year in an attempt to rescue 12 boys trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand, sparking a renewed interest in the sport and the men and women who risk their lives to pursue it.
We’re not recommending you take up cave diving unless you’re prepared to put in the hours and effort to get the high levels of certification required to take the plunge. Here, however, is a glimpse at what cave divers experience in some of the most beautiful and challenging underwater venues in the United States.
- Indian Springs – Florida
This dive poses a real challenge for those with full cave diver certification and proof that they’ve made at least 100 cave dives. It’s on private land near Tallahassee and boasts white walls studded with black goethite. Huge boulders line the twisting passageways that run between massive chambers both upstream and downstream of the central T-junction.
- Devil’s Cave System – Florida
Located in Ginnie Springs, these are among the most popular cave diving sites in the world. The system is made up of three springs: Devil’s Eye, Devil’s Ear and Devil Spring (Little Spring). The Devil’s Ear is the third in the series of caverns that lead to the Santa Fe River, and the thrill of each dive is the incredible view through crystal clear waters to sun and trees far above. Certified cave divers are allowed to carry dive lights and venture further into the cracks and caverns.
- First Cathedral – Hawaii
This dive site off Lanai features a huge chamber with natural cut-outs in the lava rock walls. The sun shining through gives the effect of seeing light through massive stained-glass windows. This is a good choice for those just begin their journey into cave diving. You’re guaranteed to see lots of fish and may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a turtle or ray.
- Bonne Terre Mine – Missouri
The abandoned mine tunnels under the city of Bonne Terre run for over seven miles and divers can follow a guide through the flooded caverns, tunnels and shafts that still contain old mining equipment and train tracks. The water’s cold but a little discomfort is a small price to pay for this unique experience. Considered an advance dive for certified divers only.
- Manatee Springs – Florida
Part of the Florida State Park System, this dive spot has one of the longest caves in the world. There are several access points to the cave system, one of which is restricted to fully certified cave divers. Below the waters is an extensive network of tunnels and caverns with fossilized animal bones, geothermal vents and plenty of interesting rock formations. You may not see a manatee but watch out for snakes, wild boars and alligators around the spring’s perimeter.
Many caves are accessible to divers with basic open water certification but almost all cave diving locations only allow certified cave divers to use lights. This prevents unqualified and inexperienced divers from venturing too far into the cracks and caverns of the depths below, but still gives everyone a chance to taste the magic of cave diving.