Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
Cave diving is one of the most dangerous sports in the world. Most people find the idea of descending into pitch-black water with hundreds of feet of rock between you and the surface to be… uncomfortable. Should something go wrong – an equipment malfunction, miscalculated oxygen levels, or even just a wrong turn down the wrong tunnel – your chances of making it out alive drop dangerously close to 0%. Even with the right training, the best equipment, and thousands of dive hours, mistakes can happen. And even the smallest mistake can cost you your life.
But despite everything that can go wrong, the fear of death is outweighed by the thrill of exploration. The crushing, claustrophobic depths are a graveyard for some and a haven for others. For me, I feel more alive hundreds of meters below the surface than I do here on land.
On my property, I have a sinkhole that opens up to a labyrinth of completely flooded tunnels and caverns. When I bought my land, I spent hundreds of hours on dives, mapping out every inch of the cave I could get to. Just me, the depths, and the darkness.
I don’t have my cave open to the public, but no matter how many “no trespassing” signs I put up, there are always a few every year who try to sneak past. Eventually, I decided to put up a few motion sensor cameras that send alerts to my phone whenever something passes by. Most of the time, it’s just birds or a deer, and so this morning, when I got the usual ping, I almost ignored it. But, in between sips of black coffee, I decided to check, just to be sure. And now, looking down at my phone, I’m glad I did.
Two young men, I’d guess in their late 20s or early 30s, are trapsing through the woods in the direction of the sinkhole. They have a mountain of gear strapped to their backs – probably to avoid having to make the mile-long journey from the road more than once. I can tell they’re struggling with the weight based on how hunched they are, but I have to admit I’m impressed with their grit. My gear is already packed up just in case guests like these show up, so all I have to do is load it on my 4-wheeler and wait for them to pass the third and final camera before I head off.
When I approach them from the opposite side of the opening, they’re startled at first. Then, they try to play dumb and say they didn’t know this was private property. The shorter one – blonde and muscular – says they hadn’t seen the “no trespassing” signs. They’re just interested in the sinkhole.
I ask how they heard about it.
The second man – a few inches taller with red hair – says they saw a post about it on a diving forum. It talked about this beautiful flooded cave in the middle of nowhere, and that at the very bottom, there’s a cavern with a few human skulls that probably date back hundreds of years. The Skull Room, the post had called it.
And of course, they want to dive down and see it.
I tell them that it’s a dangerous dive, and I’d rather not have strangers on my land. After all, I could get in trouble if something bad happened.
This is always the first test. If they agree, apologize for trespassing, and leave, then that’s that. Most people run away when they hear me rumbling up on my 4-wheeler. But not these guys. No – I can tell they’re a part of the chosen few who’s insatiable curiosity gets the better of them. They double down, promise they’ll be safe. The taller man even offers to pay me.
And how can I say no to someone when the need to explore is so deeply ingrained in them, that they would risk sneaking onto private property?
I pause to make them think they’re getting through to me. The shorter one breaks my manufactured silence and says they’ve driven all the way from California for this. That makes me chuckle. Why would anyone drive over a thousand miles to see if something with a flashy name like “the Skull Room” even exists?
After another moment of silence, I sigh. Yes, I tell them, you can dive, but on one condition: I go with you. The second test. See, I don’t look like your typical cave diver. Most of the people I see out here don’t want a 70-year-old man who walks with a limp tagging along on their adventures.
If they refuse, they’re out. But to my genuine surprise, they glance at each other, and then agree. Anything to get them down there.
As I’m suiting up, the shorter one asks me if the Skull Room really exists.
“It does,” I reply, “although it’s not as ancient and mysterious as you think. But between you and me, it’s my favorite part of the cave.”
When we enter the water, the light from the surface quickly fades away. Soon, all we have are flashlights to illuminate our descent. I have the two swim in front of me as we make our way down the first long, open tunnel.
I’ve got a guideline in place that leads straight to our destination, so they should be able to navigate our way there easily. That being said, there are a few precarious spots to get through before we make it to the Skull Room. The first is shimmying head-first through a narrow, horizontal slit in the wall. Depending on the size of the diver, the squeeze of the rocks around you can feel oppressive.
When we get there, I gesture to the tall one to go first. There’s a brief moment of hesitation in his movements, and he glances to his buddy with an uncertain look in his eyes. But, after a second, he swims down, maneuvers onto his stomach, and slowly starts sliding his way through. I’m watching for any sign that he’s stuck, but he’s able to inch his way to the other side with little trouble.
The next guy follows suit, and since he’s smaller, he has a considerably easier time carefully making his way through the gap. By the time I make it through, the other two are a few feet ahead of me, following the guideline down the open tunnel.
As we continue down past the 50-meter mark, the walls start slowly constricting around us. It’s a gradual taper, but the further we go, the less room we have. Soon, our shoulders are starting to brush up against the walls, sending little puffs of silt into the water to cloud our vision. This is the last challenge – low visibility can easily get one turned around. If you’ve ever driven in heavy fog, you know what I’m talking about; your headlights are basically useless because all they do is light up the particles around you. The same is true underwater. The more silt you kick up, the harder it is to see, until eventually, you can’t even see your hand in front of your face.
I know this cave like the back of my hand, but the two in front of me don’t. The first one slows down a bit, trying to avoid bumping into the cramped walls. The second follows suit, but despite their best efforts, our visibility starts to get worse. Eventually, they both stop and turn to me, gesturing to go back. I commend their awareness. In any other cave, this might be a deadly situation. But here, I know that the walls open back up right before we get to the Skull Room, so I gesture for them to keep going. They seem hesitant, but once we squeeze through the murky cloud, we come out the other side and start on the final leg of their journey.
Just up ahead and around the corner, right at the hundred-meter mark, is the Skull Room. I tap the man in front of me on the shoulder, and he turns around. I point to give him the heads up that we’re almost there, and he does the same to his friend, who gives and excited thumbs-up.
As we round that last corner, I’m eager to see their reaction. It’s truly a sight to behold, and the handful of people I’ve brought down here have shown the full spectrum of human emotions. It’s taught me a lot about how different people confront their own mortality, and the danger of this sport we love really sinks in for them.
The first guy shines his flashlight around the room, illuminating the dark cavern with an array of jagged shadows. Then, the moment I’ve been waiting for: he shines his light up, casting a perfect spotlight on my collection.
I should admit, the “Skull Room” is a bit of a misnomer. Are there skulls? Yes. Six of them, at the moment. But those skulls are still attached to their bodies, which are positioned carefully, tied like balloons, and floating in a row at the center of the room. Most of them still have their dive gear on, although in various stages of decay. Numbers One and Two are looking a little ragged.
Like I said earlier, the smallest mistake can cost you your life down here. Sometimes, that mistake is allowing an old stranger to join you on your dive.
At that moment, I swim up behind the second man, reach around, and with a firm tug, rip his mouthpiece out.
His body jerks wildly as water enters his lungs. He tries to spin around, grasping for his mouthpiece, his flashlight creating a strobing effect around the cavern as it falls to the floor. But at that point, it’s too late. His body has involuntarily closed off his airways to avoid breathing in more water. Losing consciousness can take a minute or two when you’re drowning, so I take him by the shoulders and hold him still as I enjoy the feeling of the fight being sapped from his body.
He loses consciousness after an exquisite one minute and two seconds.
Once he’s gone, I turn my attention to the taller of the two. He’s facing me, but my body is blocking the only entrance to the cavern, so there’s nowhere for him to go. As he floats there in the cold, deadly water, I can see the enticing panic dancing in his eyes. I’m surprised he didn’t try to help his friend, but he seems frozen in fear, like a deer caught in the headlights: unable to look away, unable to move.
But despite the terror welling up in his eyes and spilling over into his goggles, I’m a bit disappointed. The last duo I brought down here was much more exciting. Numbers Five and Six: a woman and a man, boyfriend and girlfriend. I took out the woman first, and the way her blue eyes bulged out of her skull was nothing less than a masterpiece. The man had tried to wrestle her away from me and save her, but when he realized it was a futile effort, he turned and fought his way past me.
Created by Danny Ingrassia
It was the most magnificent struggle. He almost made it out, skipping past all of his decompression stops along the way. But even his youthful energy couldn’t help him as I caught him by the ankle just twenty feet from the surface. I had wanted to drag him back down alive so he could see his girlfriend one last time, but the poor fool ran out of air before we made it.
That adrenaline… the fear of almost letting my prey go… it was intoxicating. I want more of it. But this guy in front of me is just hyperventilating. He’s bound to run out of oxygen sooner rather than later with how quickly he’s breathing, so I decide to tread water and enjoy the show.
It takes him ten minutes to run out of air, and I get to witness another spectacular display of thrashing and lurching before he, too, finally goes still after one minute and thirty-six seconds.
Now that the grand finale is over, I set about positioning them among the others I’ve collected. I take the shorter one and guide his body next to Number Six. Carefully, I take a spool of fishing line that I’ve stashed down here and tie his feet together before meticulously securing it to the bottom with several heavy stones. Once he’s nicely squared away, I take the other and situate him next to his friend.
A quick check of my air tells me that I need to start heading back. I want to stay and admire my work, but I’m not quite ready to become a corpse, and I’ll have plenty of time to reminisce about Numbers Seven and Eight on my decompression stops up to the surface. They weren’t quite as thrilling as Number Six, but the looks on their faces will last me until I can find the next addition to my underwater collection. I’ll have to make another post on that forum – maybe some more gullible adventurers will dive into the unknown with me again.