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Deep, Dark and Deadly
Michael Ray Taylor
October 03, 1994
The perils of cave diving didn't spare even the sport's greatest star
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October 03, 1994

Deep, Dark And Deadly

The perils of cave diving didn't spare even the sport's greatest star

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When he finally emerges in the night, Bowden will suffer his second case of the bends. Using a controversial French technique that proved effective with the first case, Kristovich will treat him with massive doses of intravenous steroids, anticoagulants and painkillers. By the next morning Bowden will be on his feet. He will continue deep diving, in Zacatón and elsewhere. Having reached at least 915 feet, Jim Bowden now holds the world open-circuit scuba depth record.

I assume that Exley's body will never be recovered, that he continued sinking from the point where the trouble occurred, whatever that trouble was. Zacatón will have to be a fitting tomb for the world's greatest cave diver.

I am wrong. Three days later, when the dive team begins to pull up Exley's unused decompression tanks, they discover him entangled in the guideline. His depth gauge reads 904 feet.

The exact cause of his death is unknown. There are several reasonable guesses, high among them HPNS, but they will remain only guesses. Irby Exley claims his son's body and has it cremated in just 21 hours.

April 12, 1994

I join divers from around the world for a memorial service at the Ortega Methodist Church in Jacksonville. The church bulletin contains an excerpt from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan, one of Ex-ley's favorite poems. "Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea," read the famous lines. The week before Exley went to Zacatón, his publisher had called to say that his latest book, his memoirs, had gone to the printer. The book's title: Caverns Measureless to Man.

After the service Don Jacobs, a 20-year-old who studied karate with Exley for seven years, sees me taking notes. "I want you to write this down exactly," he tells me. He thinks for a long minute before saying, "The man taught us to love and respect every individual no matter what race, religion, whatever, the way he loved each of us. He treated us like his own kids. Sheck Exley was the best friend I ever had."

I write it down, exactly as he says.

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