CASSVILLE, Mo. – A dive team exploring the spring at Roaring River State Park has passed the previous national record, but there’s still no bottom in sight.
The team, led by diver Mike Young, of Fort Smith, Arkansas, “slide easily” to a depth of 120 meters in the spring Saturday, surpassing their previous depth of 45 meters reached at Roaring River last month.
Bob Koch, president and team director of the Ozark Cave Diving Alliance, said his organization is not aware of any deeper exploration of a resource in the Ozarks. Loring Bullard, of Springfield, author of “Living Water, the Springs of Missouri,” notes in his 2020 book, “Divers have descended to about 380 feet in Cannonball Spring, as deep as all cave divers in Missouri have gone.”
In 2013, divers at Phantom Springs Cave in western Texas reached a depth of 462 feet, and it was ranked by Caving News at the time as the “deepest underwater cave system known in the United States.”
“Roaring River Spring would now be ranked as the deepest natural spring in the United States to date,” Curt Bowen said by email Monday. 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 of the ADM Exploration Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to exploration, underwater discovery and education.
“There was about a 90% chance that we would have to abort Saturday’s dive without reaching our target of 470 feet,” Young said. “Randall (Purdy) and I were both using new and replacement gear, so we were willing to shorten the dive and return to the surface if we had any problems. Fortunately we didn’t have to. Everything just fell into place perfectly.”
While there’s still nothing to be seen that could be called a bottom of the well, Young says the sides have narrowed into a tunnel that continues to slope downward.
In addition to discovering the narrowing passageway, Purdy, the chief underwater photographer, said they also encountered what he described as a cave-adapted creature that looked like a white salamander.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Young, “not in any of my cave explorations anywhere in the world.”
Diver/cartographer Jon Lillestolen sent a photo and video of the creature to Dr. Michael Sutton, who maintains a database and partners with the Cave Research Foundation, and who has researched cave life in Missouri for 30 years. Sutton replied that the creature is probably the cave salamander, which is common in caves in Barry County.
Roaring River is one of the state’s most popular parks, and the heart of the park is its spring, which pumps out 20 million gallons of water daily at the base of a steep cliff. The source, the 20th largest in Missouri, is the source of the Roaring River, which is stocked daily with trout for anglers and also provides water for the feeders where the trout is farmed.
The Fort Smith KISS Rebreathers dive team is only the third group to venture into Roaring River Spring in nearly 50 years. Two previous authorized dives were made in 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 artistic representation of the subterranean cavern that stands next to the path to spring today. A second team explored the spring in the 1990s.
The goal of this diving effort, which lasted all summer and fall, was to penetrate a known choke 225 feet below the surface, which was as far as previous teams. The KISS team got through that this summer.
As Young and Purdy dived deep, other members of the team stayed above the constraint to continue mapping and exploring.
According to Young, further expeditions will be suspended after the weekend dive until their 2022 permit application is reviewed and approved by the Missouri Department of National Resources, which manages state parks.
“We’re not planning a dive for December,” Young said, “and with the typically high amount of rain we get in the spring, we don’t expect to be able to dive deep again until June 2022, and that’s only, of course, if our permit is.” is approved.”
Young says there’s plenty to do in the caves without having to dive deep.
“We’d like to know how big that bottom cave is,” he said.