SSI x Edges of Earth: The Devil’s Den And Back Again

When it comes to extreme diving in the USA, you might first think of ice diving in Alaska, the blackwater of Hawaii, or perhaps even the kelp forests synonymous with diving in California. But aside from those more obvious choices, there is also some incredible diving in Florida. Arguably home to some of the most daunting and unique ecosystems out there, it is no surprise we chose this place for our first American bodies of water to explore while on expedition, including the famous Devil’s Den.

Known for its deep and largely unexplored cave systems, shark populations, natural springs and unrivaled wetlands, Florida seems to have a never-ending supply of adventure around every corner! 

In some of the most unexpected spots in the state, there are hidden dive sites that can unnerve even the most experienced divers. Stories about a site called Eagle’s Nest Sinkhole remind us that diving is no joke and that accidents can happen to even the most prepared divers. In this case, 10 times—where veteran divers have lost their lives to nature. 

A good majority of the springs and sinkholes in the area require cave diving and cavern diver certifications. However, there are nine sites that people without these certifications can explore. One of which is the famed Devil’s Den, earning its namesake because, well, entering this cave system looks like you are plunging straight through the gates of hell.

Diving the Devil’s Den

To dive the Devil’s Den, there is no question that you will first need to meet with the two custodians that run, manage and preserve the den—the dynamic duo Kevin Tate and Toby Keith of Florida Springs Scuba. Between the two of them, they have got more dives under their belts than you can count.

While Toby is an SSI Instructor Trainer for Classified Diving, Kevin has been diving for 40+ years and is the SSI International Training Director for Extended Range (meaning he trains the instructor trainers!). These two would never say it but we will: they are the real deal. 

Both of them have dedicated their lives to empowering people to plunge into the devil’s home, pushing past any sort of fear they might have once had and inspiring the next generation of legendary adventure seekers. They aim to teach their students how to become hard-core, extremely technical, and all-round best practice role models for the sport. 

Pulling up at 7 am, we sat at the gates of hell waiting for what was going to become one of the most incredible dives we had ever embarked on.

Kevin greeted us with an enthusiasm that bypassed pleasantries, diving straight into the site’s captivating history:

"This ancient underwater spring is renowned for its Pleistocene Age fossils, spanning from 2 million to 10,000 years ago. The steam that we see comes from the spring’s consistent 72 °F (22 °C) waters clashing with the cooler air."

"This phenomenon led early settlers to name it Devil’s Den, believing the steam signified smoke billowing from the depths of the underworld," Kevin explained as if it was his first time telling this story. 

He went on to share that the spring’s unique geological features include an inverted mushroom shape below the surface, a 120-foot (37-meter) surface diameter, and a maximum depth of 54 feet (16 meters), creating a mysterious and captivating underwater environment.

Within this crystal-clear water sits ancient rock formations, stalactites and fossil beds that are over 33 million years old, offering a window into Earth’s distant past. 

Many of the remarkable fossil finds—including remains of extinct species such as mastodons, saber-toothed cats, and mega-camels—are displayed at the University of Florida in Gainesville, highlighting the area’s rich biodiversity and historical significance. 

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Blown away by this history lesson, we took in Toby’s briefing and hiked down the steep stairs fully kitted up, ready to explore the ancient site. It was cold, and the rising steam fogged up our masks even after the standard spit-to-defog process took place.

Having to remember the differences between diving freshwater versus saltwater, we did some checks and balances at the surface. The water was so clear that we could see straight to the bottom, with archaic-looking turtles and behemoth fish swarming around us without a care. 

Our small group were the only ones in the den, likely because it was bitterly cold outside and local Floridians do not like to venture outdoors when the temperature has dropped below 70 °F (21 °C). 

When we began our dive at Devil’s Den, we entered a world that felt so raw it was as if we had traveled back in time, with water so clear it was almost disorienting. 

As we navigated through what felt like a proper cave system, we understood why Kevin and Toby had decided to call this place home.

As we made it back to the surface after the dive of a lifetime, Toby could not help but get emotional when talking about her personal experiences breaking into the world of diving later in her life. 

It all started with a visit to go diving in Florida, fueled by her quest for a new passion and her next great adventure. Drawn by the allure of the state’s abundant springs and the proximity to the salt waters of the East Coast, she found diving to be an inexhaustible source of exploration. Something she craved in her next chapter. 

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Ten years later, her days are now dedicated to demystifying diving practices for those who find themselves at the gates of hell. Whether it is breaking down the basics to empower new Open Water Divers, or helping to fine-tune the skills of more advanced divers, she is up for anything and everything to help people on their dive trajectory.

"It is all about teaching people how to relax," Toby explained. She believes that the comfort and confidence that come from good training not only bring people closer to diving but also deepen their connection to the natural world.

Witnessing the proficiency of other divers fuels passion and interest, laying the foundation for a lifelong commitment to the sport. "Train effectively first, then the passion will follow," she explained. 

Changing lives one dive at a time

Toby mentioned a method she uses when diving freshwater that she calls the "double exhale", which enables divers to descend with little to no weight—which is the ultimate confidence builder.

Her whole training methodology is to empower beginners and experienced divers alike to think about best practices, focus on form and technique, and always stay curious regardless of age, level or expertise. 

This is how the dynamic duo sets their students up for success, ensuring they are feeling prepared for whatever challenges they may face underwater. Her main piece of advice for beginners is to approach diving with an open mind, free from preconceived notions and fears.

"We are teaching them how to realize that they can do hard things, overcome whatever fear is nagging at them, and then apply those same techniques back into their everyday life on land. It’s not just about getting comfortable with diving but learning how to battle and reconcile with yourself," Toby shared. "The double exhale goes a long way in and out of the water".

But what hit home most was Kevin and Toby’s shared explanation of the role that dive instructors play in people’s lives. As Kevin put it, "Regardless of what type of diving you are doing, divers still need the same things throughout their training. An instructor needs to be there, willing and ready to listen and support, no matter the level."

"Being part of people’s lives in this way is a huge privilege and really what drives us to be in this industry. It is not the diving; it is the divers that make this all worthwhile". 

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This sentiment is something that we have personally experienced over the last six months of our expedition exploring the world consciously. Yes, we love wildlife encounters, exploring uncharted sites and seeing some of the world’s most famed destinations. Yet no matter where we go, it is the people we have connected with and learned from that have left us the most in awe.

The notable and exceptional moments in the field have always started and ended with the people who have built up and maintained the diving industry. The people who have put their entire focus into helping others and the planet all the while. People like Toby and Kevin. 

For Toby, her diving journey has always been about integrity, honesty and a deep commitment to engaging with individuals from diverse backgrounds, illustrating the significant role of human connection in the sport. She reflects, "It has not been an easy journey, but there is nothing in the world that could make us trade what we have now". 

This approach to diving, with a focus on people first, builds a strong, inclusive diving community and showcases how personal interactions can profoundly enrich the experience for all involved. 

So if you are going to Florida, and you want to have one hell of a dive, look no further than diving the Devil’s Den


Andi Cross is an SSI Ambassador and lead of the Edges of Earth expedition, highlighting stories of positive ocean progress and how to explore the world more consciously. To keep up with the expedition, follow the team on InstagramLinkedInTikTokYouTube and their website