CASSVILLE, Mo. — A dive team exploring the spring at Roaring River State Park pushed past the previous national record, but there is still no bottom in sight.
The team, led by diver Mike Young, of Fort Smith, Arkansas, slipped “easily” to a depth of 472 feet into the spring Saturday, surpassing their previous depth of 451 feet, achieved last month at Roaring River.
Bob Koch, president and team director of the Ozark Cave Diving Alliance, said his organization is not aware of any deeper exploration of a spring in the Ozarks. Loring Bullard, of Springfield, author of “Living Water, the Springs of Missouri,” notes in his 2020 book, “Divers have gone down to about 380 feet in Cannonball Spring, as deep as any cave divers in Missouri have gone.”
In 2013, divers at Phantom Springs Cave in West Texas reached a depth of 462 feet, and it was ranked at the time by Caving News as the “deepest underwater cave system known in the United States.”
“Roaring River spring would now be ranked the deepest natural spring in the United States to date,” Curt Bowen said Monday by email. Bowen is the CEO and founder of Advanced Diver Magazine, the world’s largest publication for advanced and technical diving, owner and CEO of Rebreatherworld.com, and vice president for the ADM Exploration Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to underwater exploration, discovery and education.
“There was about a 90% chance we would have to abort Saturday’s dive without reaching our goal of 470 feet,” Young said. “Randall (Purdy) and I were both using some new and replacement pieces of equipment, so we were prepared to cut the dive short and come back to the surface if we had any problems. Luckily, we didn’t have to. Everything just fell into place perfectly.”
Although there is still nothing that could be called a bottom to the spring in sight, according to Young, the sides have narrowed into a tunnel that continues to angle downward.
In addition to the discovery of the narrowing passageway, Purdy, the chief underwater photographer, said they also came across what he described as a cave-adapted creature that looked like a white salamander.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Young said, “not in any of my cave explorations anywhere in the world.”
Diver/cartographer Jon Lillestolen submitted a photo and video of the creature to Dr. Michael Sutton, who manages a database and works with the Cave Research Foundation, and has spent 30 years researching Missouri cave life. Sutton responded that the creature is likely the grotto salamander, common in caves in Barry County.
Roaring River is one of the state’s most popular parks, and the heart of the park is the spring, pumping out 20 million gallons of water daily at the base of a steep bluff. The spring, the 20th largest in Missouri, is the source of the Roaring River, which is stocked with trout daily for anglers and also provides water for the raceways where trout are raised.
The dive team from KISS Rebreathers of Fort Smith is only the third group to venture into Roaring River Spring in nearly 50 years. Two previous authorized dives have been made into the spring, the first commissioned by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in 1979. During that exploration, divers Roger Millar and Frank Fogarty reached a depth of 225 feet and created an artist’s rendering of the subsurface cavern that stands beside the path to the spring today. A second team explored the spring in the 1990s.
The goal of this diving effort, which has been going all summer and fall, was to penetrate a known stricture 225 feet below the surface, which was as far as previous teams got. The KISS team made it through that this summer.
While Young and Purdy dove deep, other members of the team remained above the restriction to continue mapping and exploration efforts.
According to Young, after the weekend dive, further expeditions will be on hiatus until their application for a 2022 permit is reviewed and approved by the Missouri Department of National Resources, which manages state parks.
“We’re not scheduling a dive for December,” Young said, “and with the typically large amount of rain we get in the spring, we don’t anticipate being able to deep-dive again until June of 2022, and that’s only, of course, if our permit is approved.”
Young says there is plenty of mapping to do in the caverns without having to dive deep.
“We’d like to find out just how large that bottom cavern is,” he said.