Exploration of the
is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest underground lake
in the world. Located in Sweetwater, Tennessee about
half way in between Chattanooga and Knoxville the Lost
Sea was always calling
those of us cave divers who lived nearby to go diving.
several cave divers were negotiating with the Chairman of the Board of Directors
(BOD) of the Lost Sea
to allow us to begin exploration of the underwater portion of the cave. Primarily
Tom Mount was the “name” that gained us access to the Lost Sea.
He along with Bill Schenck, a former NACD instructor convinced the BOD that
we had the experience and ability to explore this system. The BOD was excited
for us to do this because they too were curious where the cave lead to.
Sea is a world class tourist
attraction with tours of the dry cave ending with a boat ride on the lake. Their
web site can be seen at http://www.thelostsea.com.
The underwater caves are simply an extension of the dry cave areas. The dry
cave is extensive. We spent many weeks crawling around the dry cave and caverns
getting a feel for how the system was laid out before we made our first dives.
During the winter months while we were exploring we stayed overnight in an equipment
room near the lake and had full access to the dry cave.
into the cave, to the lake is about ¼ mile down an incline, there are no steps
but carrying double 100’s up & down that incline for filling was a challenge.
We had an old compressor on a trailer owned by Bill Schenck,
of course it was powered by a gasoline engine and pumped about 8 cubic feet/minute.
Some days Lost Sea
staff hauled our tanks back and forth on an electric golf cart, other days we
walked them up and down the hill.
initial preparations for exploring the cave we had surveyors to get into the
dry cave and then onto boats and made a survey of the lake. The lake was measured
to be 800 feet long by 220 feet wide, about 4.5 acres. Even before the surveys
we knew there were potentially several passages that would lead off into “going
cave” and our initial task was to determine where first to dive.
the tour that tourists get is a glass bottom boat ride onto the lake. The lake
was stocked with large Rainbow Trout and the perimeter of the lake was lined
with underwater lighting. We used one of those boats to cruise around the lake
and we did our initial surveys with wet suits and mask, fins
& yes, snorkels. The water temperature was, as I recall very cold. Fifty-two
of the diving committee I was the record keeper, map keeper and point of contact
with the BOD. All my records were in my parents home when it caught fire burning
all my dive gear and all records & maps of our exploration, some years after
the project ended.. I lived 45 minutes from the Lost
Sea and had recently been
certified as NACD instructor #28.
several of us who were diving over the almost 2 years that we worked in that
system. There would be weekends that we dived all day & night
and then weeks when none of us could make it up there to dive.
We required all divers to be NACD certified divers. The NSS-CDS was yet to be
formed. NACD at that time had only 1 level of certification, Cave Diver.
the divers that assisted were Jim Fishback, Victor Sparks, Sheck Exley, Mac
Fair, Jeff Davis, Billy Young, and Tom Mount. Tom got us in the door and made
a few dives with us doing the initial surveys into the underwater cave system
& really got us on track exploring the main passage. Tom was at that time
the training director for the NACD and his help was key. Tom lived in Miami
at the time and found the 20 hour drive prohibitive to be with us every weekend
that we dived. Sheck talks briefly about the Lost
Sea in “Caverns Measureless to Man”,
but was not able to make that long drive from North Florida
We had no
way of knowing what depths we would encounter , but we all suspected that the
depths would be in excess of 100 feet very shortly after beginning the exploration,
we were correct. The underwater section of the cave angled down just as sharply
as the dry cave did. We were diving air, and decompressing on air. That was
all we had in those days. The hi-tech gear we had included a Benjamin valve
(Dual Outlet) , harnesses attached to our tanks and
a horsecollar BCD with optional power inflator. Victor Sparks elected
to use oral inflation, rather than the power inflation option. Our lights were
Frank Martz type lights with wet NiCad batteries & sealed beam halogen 100
watt bulbs. We got an hour burn time out of these lights. Our reels were of
a Frank Martz design also. All of my reels & lights were built by Bill Schenck
who never dived with us after all the work of getting access due to personal
reasons not to do with cave diving.
tie off was in open water, we tied to one of the underwater lights dangling
down about 10 feet under the surface. The secondary tie off was quite another
problem, as was all other tie offs. We discovered immediately that all outcroppings
from the wall and ceiling were very delicate and any attempt to tie line to
these outcroppings resulted in destruction of the out cropping and a corresponding
decrease in visibility.
was very thick with very fine red clay silt. It was in some places 6 feet thick
and others as much as 2-3 feet thick. No where that we ever found had a rocky
bottom. We resolved the no tie off point issue with stakes we would drive into
the silt. This silt was almost like jello, in that it wiggled when you got near
we made out of reinforcing bar with a fender washer welded onto the top. Mac
Fair volunteered to make up a batch of these stakes before our next series of
dives. On our first set of dives we installed no line because of this.
trip up, armed with our exploratory reels and homemade tie off points we attempted
to install exploratory line into the system. Mac fair made these stakes for
us before every trip up to dive. We decided on 3 man teams for line installation
because the weight of the stakes was so much that is was too much for 1 diver
to carry while one diver was laying line. One diver ran a reel, and both other
divers would carry 1 or 2 of these stakes.
a lot of line that next weekend. The stakes worked fine, they were all 6 feet
long and most of them went into the silt to a point where only a foot to 18
inches stuck out. The diver placing the stake had to be extremely careful and
be slow in placing the stake so as not to completely blow out the 15 feet of
visibility we had most of the time, on the way in.
was employed by the U.S. Geological Survey during the time we were doing this
exploration. One weekend he brought with him an underwater sonar unit so we
could measure dimensions of the rooms we were swimming through. Most of the
time we were unable to get any sense of the size of the underwater rooms due
to the limited visibility as well as the enormous size of the rooms and the
was a flashing type fish finder in a waterproof housing. It would read as deep
as 120 feet if it were mounted on a boat. We took this unit with us on dives
after we had installed line and were attempting to make an initial map of the
cave. The unit maxed out at 120 feet in the first room we came to after the
lake, we were along one wall, but the room was so large that we could not get
a reading on the opposing wall, or the end of the room. The room was at a point
of about 400 feet of penetration, and 110-120 feet of depth. It had taken us
several dives to install 400 feet of line.
to continue installing line as we had leveled off at 110-120 feet and the cave
was going. One dive I recall coming to the end of my reel, after having installed
about 300 feet of line, we drove a stake into the silt and I tied off the end
of the line to the fender washer. We blew the vis out to zero, and as I was
cutting the line and stowing my empty reel I realized I was off of the line,
I had no safety reel. I knew I was in deep trouble if I did not relocate that
line soon. There was no way to wait out that clay silt, there was no visibility
and I would not expect my buddy to be able to find me, he had no safety reel
either. Safety reels were introduced to cave divers after this event took place
and we were not trained to use them, or even knew of their existence. Obviously
I found the line after a minute or two (seemed like 20). Using the methodical,
non-line search I had been taught in my 6 month long full cave course.
anthodites or cave flowers at 65 feet deep on the walls, this was fascinating
to the geologists and other science guys because we know that
these cave flowers cannot form
underwater. These flowers were photographed, copies sent to the BOD, and others
burned in the house fire that also took my high school annuals and other memorabilia
of my 20 years on earth.
one continuous guideline with no off shooting lines because the passage kept
going .Overall we installed about 1500 feet of line in that system.
event that continually occurred made us all think long and hard about continuing
this exploration was the percolation that we experienced on every dive. Since
no human had ever been in there before us, the overhead had clinging to it all
the silt of a thousand years or more, and every time we exhaled stuff rained
down on top of us. Mostly it was clouds of silt, occasionally a few small rocks
exit we experienced 5 feet or so of visibility due to this percolation, couple
that with 100-120 feet of depth on air, Fifty two degree water and it created
an added stress factor for us all.
with Tom Mount as team leader, and Victor Sparks as team member an event took
place that made us re-evaluate the safety of the project. Tom and Victor described
a large boulder falling from the ceiling and almost hitting them. As I recall,
they stated that the rock, the size of a Volkswagen beetle could have pinned
them to the bottom with little hope of escape. The chairman of the BOD asked
for my word, early on in our exploration that I would shut the project down
should we find conditions that we felt were more risky than we should accept
as a risk factor.
It was decided
by many of us, after this incident that things on the ceiling were loosening
up because of our bubbles. More and more rocks and debris were falling down
on us on every dive. We knew we had explored about 1500 feet of passage, created
a map and discovered significant water table changes. We saw changes in the
geology with the depth and were able to relate those changes to various geologists
who learned from it. We did not know where the cave ended up, we never walled
we were diving and decompressing on air we were spending long hours in that
frigid water. The dives were getting longer and longer with each push and the
deco was getting colder and colder.
us felt we had reached our limits and I notified the chairman of the BOD, provided
them with maps and a few photographs and ended the project with no fatalities.
There was a couple in our group who felt we should continue pushing the cave
and we will never know if we called it off too soon. I sleep well at night making
the decision to stop.
As far as
the future for further exploration of the Lost Sea
there is great potential for Closed Circuit rebreather explorers, with dry suits
and modern deco gasses. I think the property was sold to a group of attorneys
who have expressed reluctance for further exploration due to liability issues.
I have been contacted a couple of times by divers seeking advice on how to get
back in there. So far no one has seriously followed up on it.
We only explored
one passage off of the lake, it kept going and going and we saw no need to look
for other passages. My guess is that there are many more passages waiting to
Jim at 352-363-0013