Q&A with WKPP Project Director Casey McKinlay
Briefly describe the history of the WKPP
Officially formed as an NSS Project by Parker Turner in 1990, the WKPP’s primary goal has always been exploration and mapping of the cave systems within the Woodville Karst Plain including Wakulla Springs. Founding project members had been diving together since the 1980’s and discovered early on that a systematic and standardized approach to equipment and procedures would be necessary to safely and effectively explore these vast, complicated and deep cave systems. Over the years the WKPP has adapted and improved this basic system to accomplish some of the most breathtaking dives in the history of cave exploration. The WKPP has evolved into a world class cave diving project capable of exploring, mapping and facilitating research in one of the most demanding environments on the planet.
Why was it formed?
Initially the WKPP was formed to explore and map the cave systems of the Woodville Karst Plain in North Florida. Exploring in a way that would both impress and produce impressive results. I personally believe the goal was to be the best ever in underwater cave exploration and to explore with horrifying efficiency, the most difficult and demanding cave systems in the world. I believe we have delivered.
Describe your feelings during the 2006 and 2007 seasons
Throughout the 2006 and 2007 seasons there was a sense of urgency to dive no matter what the cost. The cave systems had been dark for almost 6 years and I was not sure the project could survive another 6 years of waiting for a shot at exploration. The feeling during the first couple of events in 2006 was excitement. It was great to be back in the water and exploring with basically an entirely new WKPP team. We were able to warm-up to the big dives during the 2005 Chip’s Hole Project but in the end, nothing really compares to the Wakulla and Turner exposures for the explorers and the support teams. Once we successfully confirmed the presence of going tunnel to the south with the discovery of Q-Tunnel in May, 2006, we both decided that pushing south and putting up a big number in terms of distance, while exciting, was not the immediate priority. The Wakulla-Leon connection was the priority and we would have to make some significant discoveries over an unknown number of dives to make it happen. As the season progressed, we enjoyed success in the Leon Sinks system downstream of Turner but Wakulla was not giving any indication it would connect to Leon Sinks. The feeling of excitement soon began to slip away as we encountered several disappointing dives in Wakulla during Sept, 2006. Entering the water became less enjoyable as I knew there was no guarantee of success, yet a brutal exposure, 15+ hour decompression and physical abuse were certain. The time away from family and work was also beginning to add up further complicating plans as I began to question whether all this was worth it including the risk involved which we began taking for granted years earlier.
In late December of 2006, we were rewarded with the discovery of a small tunnel heading west from Wakulla and almost immediately the mood within the team began to change. Our first big break in more than 6 months although the rains had arrived and the system went dark less than 1 week later. The tunnel was small but the flow was noticeable. Moving quickly through this new tunnel would not be possible, making for complicated logistics and added stress from having to negotiate small cave at extreme depths with large amounts of equipment. Running hammer down in large cave with multiple tanks and scooters was SOP for the WKPP but not possible here; the plan would have to change and we would have to deal with it both physically and mentally. As the system cleared in late March we were ready to go and began to investigate this new tunnel to see if it continued its western trend and if lucky, opened up. Unfortunately, a series of unexpected setbacks in April postponed the exploration. In early May, the question was answered with an impressive exploration dive west and eventually north with R-Tunnel now formally established after adding 6,300ft with total distance to the Wakulla entrance now at 15,500ft. More importantly, the tunnel opened up at 12,000ft and began to take on the familiar look of Leon Sinks