Roaring River divers

Divers continue to explore Roaring River Spring. They made it to a depth of 472 feet recently.


CASSVILLE, Mo. — A dive team that returned to Roaring River State Park in late October pushed to a record depth in its ongoing exploration of the spring in the park.

“I made it to a depth of 401 feet on Saturday, then down to 451 feet on Sunday,” head diver Mike Young, with KISS Rebreathers, of Fort Smith, Arkansas, said after the weekend dives.

Young also said the underwater terrain changes at the newly reached depth of 451 feet.

“There’s still no bottom in sight, but I’m beginning to see some ‘stepping down’ of rock formations along the sides, and there’s no silt, which leads me to believe I’m getting close to the source of the water.”

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.”

The dives make Roaring River a possible candidate for deepest spring in the country. 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.”

Asked why he didn’t continue his descent another dozen or so feet to put Roaring River Spring in the record books as the deepest spring in the nation, Young said it’s because he didn’t want to deviate from his preestablished dive plan.

“If I swam down just 10 more feet down,” he said, “it would require an additional 30 minutes of decompression time before I could resurface. I didn’t want to do that to my teammates.”

He said that each diver has a written dive plan recorded with surface manager Tony Bryant before entering the water.

“I record the time they go into the water, the length of time they plan to stay and the time they come out,” Bryant said. “If they’re late resurfacing, we wonder why.”

According to Young, during Sunday’s dive he had a brief scare near the bottom when he felt his safety line go slack.

Cartographer Jon Lillestolen, swimming above him, had repositioned the small inner tube through which the safety line passed for the purpose of giving Young more slack in his line. However, Young, for a moment, believed that his line had accidentally been cut.

“If that had actually been the case, I could have found my way back to the surface,” Young said, “but it would have been a little more difficult.”

Young says he’s confident that Roaring River Spring will surpass Phantom Cave Spring in Texas for depth.

“There’s plenty more down there in Roaring River Cave still to explore,” Young said. “Lots more than 12 feet.”

Lillestolen also said divers have laid out a total of 2,346 feet of surveyed passage in Roaring River Spring.

The divers plan to return Nov. 12-14, although with fall rains, Young says he doesn’t expect to be able to dive as deep any more this year.

“If we’re able to, we will,” he said. “But, if not, we plan to do more remapping of the cavern above the restriction.”

The team’s chief underwater photographer, Randall Purdy, says he probably speaks for most divers when he says that the record-breaking Roaring River diving project represents the dream of a lifetime. Purdy says he plans to invest in a new camera capable of filming at a depth of 600 feet.

“I can’t take my current camera below 330 feet without it imploding,” he said.

A full-length documentary of the dive team’s exploration of Roaring River cave, which will also include a history of the area, is being created by Tim Bass of TLBass Telepictures, of Bentonville, Arkansas. Short video clips of the exploration can be found on the official Roaring River State Park Facebook page.

Roaring River is one of the state’s most popular parks — it was the most visited Missouri park in 2020, according to state officials. The heart of the park is the spring pumping out 20 million gallons of water daily at the base of a bluff. The spring, the 20th largest in Missouri, is the source of Roaring River, which is stocked with trout daily for anglers and provides water for the raceways where trout are raised.

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