The non-profit research group had spent more than a decade looking for the tunnel.
Blake Wilson and Steve Cox are the primary explorers for WKPP. They were the ones to make the milestone discovery.
“Ten years, there was a lot of ups and downs and definitely a lot of challenges we faced, so that’s what made the actual connection that much more significant for us,” Wilson said.
WKPP Project Director Casey McKinlay said the discovery helps better tell the story of a complex underground aquifer, the source for Leon and Wakulla County’s drinking water.
“Where these systems go and how they connect- it is something we’ve been pursuing for a long time now,” he said. “And the curiosity draws us around every corner we find.”
Cave diving is incredibly intricate and requires a hefty amount of patience. Descending to these depths often requires hours for decompression as they slowly rise to the surface.
But for Cox and Wilson, there’s nothing like it.
“It’s a sense of stillness, peacefulness,” Cox said. “You control your destiny more or less. You’re just either floating with the current or swimming along, and it’s quiet. ”
Finding the connecting tunnel required traversing tight caves in a journey only safe for highly experienced divers.
“At first, I didn’t believe it, and it took me a few minutes to actually have it sink in on the dive that we had made the connection. And from there, it was joy,” Cox said.
According to McKinlay, the now 45-mile-long cave system is the longest underwater cave system in America and one of the longest in the world.
“This is an amazing part of living in Florida, living on limestone, living in Wakulla county,” McKinlay said. “There are cave systems everywhere and we feel that it’s important to let the public know so they can take efforts to protect and make sure these systems are providing good, fresh water for generations to come.”
McKinlay said WKPP doesn’t wade into local politics over natural resources. Instead, they provide data to help others make decisions.
WKPP dye tests and other data took center stage in 2022, as local clean water activists protested plans to build a gas station at the intersection of State Highway 267 and U.S 319. That location sits close to the Chip’s Hole Cave System, which now has a confirmed link to Wakulla Springs.
The group’s next goal: find the connection between the caves and the Gulf of Mexico. It might take several more years, but these divers are ready for the challenge.