In April 2010, Ben McDaniel, a 30-year-old Tennessean and regular scuba diver, was reeling from some major setbacks in life. He was recently divorced, and his construction business had failed, leaving him with over $50,000 in debts to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the state of Tennessee. He was also grieving for his younger brother Paul who died of a stroke at the age of 22.
Needless to say, Ben was traumatized from this experience and began scuba diving frequently as a hobby and a means to get his life back on track. He relocated to Florida and started living at his parents’ beach house and the chocolate Labrador he had rescued and began showing signs of improvement, often acting and thinking more positively since his divorce. It seemed the sabbatical was working, and that Ben had his whole life ahead of him. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
In mid-August 2010, Ben returned to Tennessee and told his parents and girlfriend that he was feeling optimistic and was working on getting a job as a diving instructor. He also expressed an interest in cave diving and wanted to receive a certification in that as well. He left his parents a letter thanking them for their help in his sabbatical and promised to look after them as they got older. He then returned to his parents’ beach house.
On August 18, Ben was at a popular diving spot near Ponce de Leon, Florida called Vortex Spring. He spent the day sitting by the cave entrance writing in his dive log and testing equipment as if he were planning something. Shopkeepers and employees became aware of Ben’s presence as a frequent visitor there and often stated that he was overconfident in his abilities – and that he knew it. He often performed his dives alone as he could not find anyone at the Spring to be his diving partner. It seems he was a bit too eager and careless for most people’s liking.
Around 7:30 PM, Ben was seen preparing for a night dive. He descended 115 ft. (35 m) to the edge of the recreational diving area until he reached the infamous warning sign with a Grim Reaper on it, which stated that he should turn back now to avoid his death. Ben ignored the sign and kept going.
Ben proceeded another 300 ft. (91 m) to a locked gate, meant to keep divers from descending further into the depths of the underwater cave. The only people with keys to this gate were extremely experienced divers and even then, they rarely explored beyond this point. However, on this day, Ben was determined and began pulling on the gate and trying to find a way to squeeze through. Another diver, Eduardo Taran, who was returning from a dive himself, saw Ben trying to force the gate open, and went over and unlocked it for him. He figured that it was less harmful to simply let Ben do what he was determined to do anyway. Eduardo Taran would be the last person to ever see him.
After the gate, Vortex Spring continues another 1,600 ft. (488 m) to a depth of 310 ft. (95 m). Most of this area is mapped, but there are still many sections that are completely unexplored because the sidewinding passages are too narrow. To proceed, divers often must take off their gear, squeeze through gaps as narrow as 10 inches, and then pull their gear through the openings – all while holding their mouthpiece in place. Divers know that if their mouthpiece ever falls out, they’re practically as good as dead.
Two days later, the authorities were called after employees realized that Ben’s truck was still in the parking lot. There were no signs of struggle nor was any of his equipment found near the cave entrance. His diving log, cell phone, and wallet with $1,100 in cash were found still in the cab of his truck. Cadaver dogs alerted law enforcement to the surface of the water, providing more credibility to the theory that Ben drowned while doing a dive.
After a thorough search by rescue divers, Ben was never found. They searched tiny crevices and narrow passageways that they believed Ben might have ended up in if he were panicked but found no evidence of his presence. All they found were two of Ben’s dive tanks near the entrance of the cave, which is unusual. Usually, divers will place extra air tanks along their route for decompression stops on their return to the surface, not at the entrance. The tanks were found to contain air only, not the specialized gas mix required to dive to further depths. Surely, Ben would have known he couldn’t use air only if he had been researching cave diving as he told his parents he was doing. Many of the rescue divers would go on record to say that they put their own lives at risk to try and find him to no avail.
On August 22, Edd Sorenson, an internationally recognized veteran cave diver was called to assist with the investigation. He was known for getting to areas where others could not. Edd performed three separate dives and ventured 1,700 ft. (518 m) into the cave, 200 ft. (61 m) further than what Ben had mapped out in his diving log. He found no trace of Ben. There was no disturbed silt or marks on any of the walls in that area. At 6’1” and 210 lbs., Ben would not have been able to pass through the narrow restrictions that deep into the cave.
After 36 days, the search efforts were concluded. They could find no trace of Ben’s body. Shortly after, conspiracy theories began forming. Many believed that Ben’s body was secretly removed from the cave to avoid lawsuits and legal trouble, or that he faked his death to start his life over under a different identity. However, police followed up on these theories and found no evidence to validate them. Cadaver dogs searched the woods and water in the vicinity and could not verify that any bacteria were present that would indicate a decomposing body was nearby. When Eduardo Taran was questioned about letting Ben through the underwater gate, he passed a lie detector test stating that he knew that Ben was not qualified or allowed to dive beyond that point and let him through anyway. The only conclusion that made sense was that Ben had drowned somewhere in the cave and that his overconfidence got the best of him. The locked gate now serves another purpose: a memorial site to Ben and countless others who have dared to venture beyond its depths and paid the ultimate price for it.
To this day, no one knows what happened to Ben McDaniel. His body was never found and is likely still in the depths of the Vortex Spring cave.
Misadventuremystery31415. (2021). Imgur. Vortex Spring. Approaching the Underwater Gate.
Thompson, E. (2017). Morbidology.com. The Missing Diver – Ben McDaniel.
Wikipedia. (2021). Disappearance of Ben McDaniel.