for National Geographic News
Completing the longest dive from one cave opening to another, divers on a treacherous 20-hour journey proved that vast underwater networks in Florida are linked.
Jarrod Jablonski and Casey McKinlay dropped into a small cave entrance called Turner Sink on the afternoon of December 15 and dove to a depth of some 300 feet (91 meters).
They then swam through 7 miles (11.25 kilometers) of underground freshwater cave—enjoying what McKinlay called "an incredible ride"—before resurfacing the morning of the 16th at Wakulla Springs State Park near Tallahassee, Florida.
It took the pair over 6 hours to complete the two-entrance cave traverse, and more than 14 more to gradually decompress before surfacing.
But they did more than set a record. Working for the Woodville Karst Plain Project, the divers swam for the first time through the state's Wakulla Springs and Leon Sinks cave systems. Scientists had already proven that the caves were connected earlier this year.
(See a map of Florida).
The project aims to map the Woodville Karst Plain, a 450-square-mile (1,165-square-kilometer) region that stretches from Tallahassee to the Gulf of Mexico.
"This seemingly isolated [Leon Sinks] sinkhole in the middle of the woods is hydrologically connected to this incredible cultural and environmental resource that is Wakulla Springs," McKinlay said.
"It's difficult for people to connect one to the other, but that's what we'd [hoped to] symbolically prove."
The Leon Sinks cave system—which divers with the project have explored for nearly 20 years—is the longest underwater explored cave in the United States and fourth longest in the world.
It's also part of a massive liquid labyrinth that is a critical groundwater resource for much of northern Florida.
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