TAMPA, Fla., Oct. 19 (UPI) — Two experienced cave divers died as they explore the treacherous Eagle’s Nest cave system near Tampa, authorities said.
Chris Rittenmeyer and Patrick Peacock, each an experienced diver, were found dead Monday in 260 feet of water in Florida’s Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area, about 60 miles north of Tampa. A third diver, Justin Blakeley, reported them missing. Blakeley, with less experience in the sport, stayed closer to the water’s surface.
The three men traveled from Fort Lauderdale for a planned three-day visit to the area starting Sunday.
Search-and-rescue teams found the bodies in “a very dangerous and complex area of the cave system,” the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
The Eagle’s Nest area of the caves, the site of 10 fatalities since 1981 was off limits to divers from 1999 to 2003. The St. Petersburg Times referred to the site as the Mount Everest of cave diving in its beauty and difficulty.
Diver and photographer Becky Kagan Schott, who has dived in Eagle’s Nest about 20 times, told CNN diving Eagle’s Nest an aspiration for many people in the sport, and noted a permanent sign can be seen, 125 feet below the surface, reading “There’s nothing in this cave worth dying for! Do not go beyond this point.”
The country medical examiner’s office is preparing autopsies on Rittenmeryer and Peacock, while the divers’ equipment is being analyzed.