Ben McDaniel’s parents believe two things: That their 30-year-old son dived into an underwater cave in Vortex Spring in Florida on the 18th of August, 2010. And that he is dead. What happened in between those two events has completely turned their life upside down.
Ben had recently moved into his parents Santa Rosa, Florida, beach condo to escape a failed business and a broken marriage. Things hadn’t been going so well for Ben recently and he needed some time to clear his head. 1 This location was perfect for Ben, who was an avid diver. Vortex Spring is a popular vacation destination hours away from the hustle and bustle of Orlando and Disney World. The spring remains a pleasant 68 degrees year round and boasts of thousands of tourists who flock to the spring for camping, swimming and of course, diving. While Ben frequented the spring, he never received sufficient training and wasn’t considered an experienced diver. The spring consists of a 200ft basin which leads to an underground cave system. In the 1990s, 13 divers perished in the cave.
As the sun faded on the 19th of August, 2010, Ben walked down the narrow dock and slipped in the clear, warm, water of Vortex Spring. He was wearing a dive mask, fins, and a wet suit.
What happened next is enshrined in mystery.
Two days later, it was noticed that Ben’s car was still in the parking lot where it had remained for the past two days. The spring was closed and crime scene tape was tied from tree to tree while his disappearance was investigated. There was no sign of a struggle at his car and his belongings were untouched, including $1,000 in cash.
Police assigned divers searched for Ben for days. Armed with flashlights, they searched the spring. Cadaver dogs picked up a scent along the bank of the spring as well as one in the water but when county health departments sampled the water, they found no indication of a spike in bacteria consistent with decomposition.
Witnesses came forward to say they had encountered Ben on the evening of the 18th of August. He was descending down towards the cave which starts 300 feet from the cavern. At the entrance to the cave is a sign depicting the Grim Reaper. It contains a warning to divers of the consequences of diving past that point: “PREVENT YOUR DEATH. GO NO FARTHER. THERE’S NOTHING WORTH DYING FOR” it ominously reads.
Ben reached the locked gate at the entrance to the cave; only experienced divers were given a key to the lock. Ben wasn’t an experienced diver thus he had no key. Eduardo Taran, however, was an experienced diver as well as an employee at Vortex Spring. He had come to know Ben in the past couple of months. As he watched Ben attempt to open the gate, he retrieved his own key and opened the gate, allowing Ben to swim though. This was the last time Ben was ever seen. Eduardo later passed a lie detector test.
Over the forthcoming years, experienced divers continued to search the spring for any sign of Ben at the request of his parents who had offered a reward. While police had already searched the spring, there were certain passages that they refused to search because it was much too dangerous and they weren’t experienced enough. They didn’t want to risk their lives, understandably. Ed Sorenson, an experienced diver who owns a dive shop, searched the spring scrupulously. He wriggled through minuscule crevices that Ben (who stood at 6’1”) would have been much too large to fit through but he was determined to search every single inch of the cave system. While divers couldn’t find Ben, they did find two decompression tanks which are left by divers as they ascend to avoid decompression sickness. It was concluded that these tanks had been left behind by Ben.
Other than the two tanks, there was no sign of Ben: no dive mask, no fins, no wet suit, no body. Many divers are adamant that Ben isn’t inside the cave. One of the experienced divers who searched for Ben, Kevin Carlisle, explained: “We may never know the truth of where he is, but we do know where he isn’t and that is because of a lot of talented and qualified divers.” As they searched the tiny passages, there was no sign of human activity. There were no marks on the limestone where a diver’s helmet or tank would have scraped the cave ceiling. There were no signs of activity from aquatic scavengers like one would assume if there were a deceased body down there.
Some theorise that something more sinister happened to Ben: that he was murdered. The McDaniel family hired Lynn-Marie Carty, a private investigator. While investigating, she found some unsavoury characters associated with the Vortex Spring. The former owner, Lowell Kelly, was charged with driving an ex-employee into the woods and accused him of stealing money before beating him viciously with a baseball bat. The ex-employee managed to escape into the woods but was left so shaken that he moved his family out of town and swore he would never return. On the evening Ben disappeared, an inebriated Lowell showed up at the spring and asked if it was too late to go diving. 2 Coincidentally, Lowell died under suspicious circumstances two years after Ben disappeared. He was found unresponsive at his home after suffering blunt force trauma to the head. Nevertheless, police refused to treat it as a homicide, much to the dismay of Lynn-Marie Carty.
Others theorise he faked his own death. Several posters on scubaboard.com leaned towards this theory, adding that he’s probably living it up in Mexico. He had a failed marriage and financial trouble. In fact, he owed the IRS $48, 861. Despite his woes, Ben had started to turn his life around. He had a new girlfriend in Florida and had been talking about starting his own business. This is the theory that Ben’s parents believe the least. They are adamant that he wouldn’t do something so cruel to them. In 2008, the McDaniel family suffered a tragedy when their youngest son, Paul, died from a stroke. “We know our son to know he wouldn’t put us through that again,” said Patty, Ben’s mother.
The grim mystery of where Ben is haunts the McDaniels family. Without a body, closure is impossible. To this day, they haven’t given up hope that one day Ben, dead or alive, shall be found.
- Tampa Bay Times, 17 April, 2011 – “Why Ben McDaniel Dove into Vortex Springs”
- Tampa Bay Times, 25 March, 2012 – “Seeking Secrets only the Spring Knows”