Saturday. Wakulla Springs, Fla. Children laugh on the beach. Teenagers jackknife and cannonball from the high dive. The 72° water hums with the pinging motor of a glass-bottomed boat. Tourists pass over the powerful boil, gawking at the great cave 120 feet below. The water carries another sound, something distant, rhythmic: Hiss. Bubble. Hiss. Bubble.
Pure water flows under the whole of north Florida, carving up the hard white limestone and chuckling forth at hundreds of great blue springs, of which Wakulla is the greatest. Today, once again, its deep water has lured the Exley boys, 19-year-old Sheck and 16-year-old Edward, all the way from Jacksonville.
Irby Sheck Exley Jr., home from the University of Georgia, dives every weekend, paying for equipment and compressed air with a summer job in the parts department of his father's Volkswagen dealership. In the five years since he took a basic scuba certification course at a YMCA pool, he has gained a reputation at the Panhandle's dive shops. It's said Shock can make a tank of air last longer than it ought to, can keep a calm head at depths that should knock him woozy with nitrogen. Maybe it's the mental discipline of karate—he's only months away from a black belt—that lets film slow his heart and lungs by sheer will, allows him to think straight at 300 feet below. Maybe it's his obsession with gear, the way he rebuilds half the things he buys, finds and corrects potential flaws in scuba regulators designed by Navy engineers.
Sheck might go all afternoon without saying two words. His younger brother, on the other hand, has the gift of gab. There's an easy and almost infectious wildness about Edward. Back when 10-year-old Sheck was cataloging—by sex, size and species—the snakes that lived in the swamp across the street from their suburban home, seven-year-old Edward was slipping them down girls' dresses.
Signs in the Wakulla parking lot prohibit scuba. But Wakulla is a great place for free diving, for the brothers to see how long they can hold their breath and how far they can push the needle on Sheck's new depth gauge. They swim out to the deep water, where they take turns strapping the stainless-steel dial on their wrists.
Over and over again they hyperventilate and head for the bottom, waiting until the last possible second to turn and point their bursting lungs toward the Honda sun. Edward pushes the needle to 30 feet. Sheck takes it to 35. Edward makes 42. Sheck focuses his mind, relaxes and hits 50 feet. Edward laughs and sucks in mighty gusts, hyperventilating to the edge of unconsciousness before plunging down. Sheck watches his brother pass 50 feet and keep going, swimming deeper than either of them has gone without scuba. He watches Edward start to turn and suddenly go limp. He watches Edward begin to float slowly downward.
Sheck dives back down to rescue Edward, but without scuba it's impossible. He climbs out of the water, shouting for help. He runs to his car, where he has an air tank, but he's too exhausted to attempt another dive. Another swimmer straps on the gear and runs back down the beach as seconds tick by. He enters the water and pumps his fins. Bubble. Hiss. Bubble. Hiss. The swimmer pulls Edward from the sandy bottom and up to the beach. Sheck pounds the water from his brother's lungs before a panicked crowd, willing Edward to live, calmly and correctly breathing life into him. Just life enough to get Edward into an ambulance and onto a machine. Late that night the machine is turned off. Edward is gone.
After Edward's death, Sheck turns his grief into a drive for perfection underwater, for safety and technique, for achievement without mishap. He begins diving with Ned DeLoach, the most experienced diver of that time. By 1970 Exley holds world records for both linear distance traveled and depth achieved in a cave dive. His gear designs and safety procedures are adopted by much older, more experienced divers.
People pay attention to Exley, pay him compliments. He always turns the compliments around, praising the speaker: I'm sure you could have done the same. Probably a lot better. The important thing is that we had a safe dive. He confides to a friend, "I can't stop diving, but I can make it safer. I've got to. I can't put my parents through that kind of pain again."
Exley makes his black belt, spends hours a day in exercise. He writes, reads poetry, plays the piano, toys with differential equations. He gets his business degree, returns to Jacksonville and joins his dad's car dealership. By the end of the decade he is the firm's general manager.