One cave diver who stops by Exley's camp at Nacimiento Mante is Jim Bow-den. Like Exley, Bowden labored for years in a family business—an Austin photo studio—and then gave it up for what he calls "the old Star Trek syndrome": going where no man has gone before. Traveling through Mexico and Belize on a shoestring, he has discovered and explored more underwater passages than many huge, well-funded expeditions.
Bowden and Exley hit it off. Both love exploration for its own sake. Both are dive instructors who seek to instill confidence and a dedication to safety in their students. Both have studied literature and love to quote romantic poetry. And both know the secret locations of some very deep holes that no divers have entered. Sitting in Exley's camp, they decide to teach a cave-diving class together and to develop plans for very deep dives.
Feb. 22, 1990
The Florida sunset spreads out in pastel bands, orange sherbet reaching into pale turquoise. Two metal sheds sit beside Exley's modular home; in front of one shed is a Ford cargo van with Mexican tourist stickers on the windshield. Exley is loading tanks into the back of the van. He greets me and says, "I thought maybe we could meet M.E. for dinner."
M.E. is Mary Ellen Eckoff, the world's most experienced woman cave diver. A tanned, good-looking woman with a Southern accent, Eckoff is a grant-writer for Florida school boards and has trained more than a hundred cave divers, logging more than a thousand dives in the process. In 1987, at Nacimiento Mante, she set a women's depth record of 400 feet.
Eckoff and Exley met in 1977 and were married in 1983. The marriage lasted only three years, but the diving relationship and love somehow endured.
Exley and I climb into the van and head down winding blacktop through scrub pine. On the console are a couple of swollen, water-warped paperbacks, cheap science fiction, with the pages glued together. These Exley uses to pass the time during long decompressions. He can't finish a novel on the surface, after it dries, but next time down, the pages will become pliable once more.
"Why do such deep dives?" I ask him.
"I held both the world depth and distance records in 1970," Exley says. "I thought it would be nice to hold them both again before I retire. It just took me nearly 20 years to do it." He pauses before adding, "I wanted to get to a thousand feet. It's a nice round number. But that might be pushing it. I'm going to have to hang up my tanks—at least from that sort of thing—pretty soon. I guess the real reason I'm doing it is I just want to know what's down there."
We meet Eckoff at a Live Oak barbecue house. As she and Exley share diving tales over heaping plates of ribs, both show playful sides I've missed from watching divers only in caves. Eckoff describes the pranks Exley and his regular dive partner, Paul DeLoach (no relation to Ned), have pulled on each other during decompressions. There was, for instance, that time at Cathedral Canyon, the cave in Exley's backyard near Live Oak.