Dark Waters: Vanishing Divers Who Swam Off the Face of the Earth

The seas and waterways of our world have always beckoned to us. They have called to us like a siren and there have always been those of us who have answered the call to go forth and delve into their secrets. Yet for all these brave souls have brought back in terms of knowledge there have always been those who the sea has chosen to keep for itself. Indeed it is a seemingly ravenous place for our kind, and if one is looking for a venue in which the most inexplicable and notorious vanishings have occurred one needn’t look much further than the seas and waterways of our world. Untamed, uncontrollable, and most often unexplored enigmas, these are the places to which many have gone on to push off into the realm of unexplained mysteries. The vast pantheon of unexplained vanishings indeed calls these places a friend, and here we will delve into some of the more noteworthy accounts of those who would tame these wild submerged places, only to pass on to the realm of unsolved mysteries. These are the stories of the divers that have swum off into places unknown, to leave us baffled and perplexed.

One of the most mysterious and well-known disappearances of a diver revolves around Ben McDaniel, of Collierville, Tennessee. In 2010, Ben had been going through a decidedly rough patch in his life. His marriage had flamed out and ended in a messy divorce, and the construction company that he had owned and built his dreams upon had gone bankrupt, saddling him with an exorbitant sum of around $50,000 in tax debts. Adding to all of this pain was the depression and grief that still lingered with him after the death of his younger brother, Paul, who in 2008 had died of a stroke at the young age of 22, practically right before his very eyes. Seeking to get a fresh start and try to leave his worries behind, Ben decided to move away to Florida to live at his parents’ quaint beach home at Santa Rosa Beach, on the Emerald Coast.

In Florida, Ben was able to noticeably relax in his new environment, and his parents and girlfriend reported that he had been making great improvements in his outlook on life and he seemed to be the most optimistic and happiest he had been in a long time. The bold move also allowed him to engage in taking up an old hobby of his; scuba diving, which he had been doing on and off since he was a teenager. Ben got some gear and began to become a regular diver at a freshwater spring and cavern system called Vortex Springs.

Ben McDaniel

Although a very popular diving spot, Vortex Springs is not for the inexperienced or feint of heart, featuring an expansive cavern that begins at 58 feet (18 m) below the surface, which sports a deep, narrow cave that starts around 115 feet (35 m) and meanders for 300 feet (91 m) until it ends at a locked gate preventing further penetration into the murk to all but the most qualified and experienced divers who are given the key. Diving in the cave is a dangerous proposition, a fact which is driven home by the sign at its entrance carrying a warning and an image of the Grim Reaper. Beyond the gate, the cave system continues into a spidery network of tunnels and caverns that has been mapped so far to over 1,600 feet (490 m) through the darkness and plunging down to a depth of 310 feet (94 m), with much of the system still totally unexplored. Considering the darkness, and the disorienting, twisting tunnels that sometimes become so narrow that experienced divers who are allowed to progress past the gate must at times take off their tanks in order to squirm though, it is no wonder that well over a dozen divers have made their last dives here. Perilous, dangerous, harrowing, these are words which would be no stranger to the Vortex Springs.

Despite the inherit, very fatal dangers of the site and the harrowing, difficult to navigate cave system, Vortex Springs is nevertheless one of the most popular, premiere diving spots in the state, and divers flock here to see the natural underwater beauty and due to the challenge level involved. Ben was totally enthralled by the site, hooked, and had been researching cave diving, going on to become such a regular diver there that he was well known by the Dive Shop staff and other regulars at Vortex Springs. He was known for secretly exploring the cave up to the gate, even though he did not possess the required certification for this, but mostly everyone put up with it in light of his unwavering enthusiasm. On the blistering hot day of August 18, 2010, Ben went to Vortex Springs as usual and took a midday dive, where he was witnessed by other divers to be intently examining the entrance of the cave, after which he resurfaced and had his tanks filled at the dive shop. He then spent the rest of the day feverishly making notes in his dive log and testing his equipment before heading out for another dive in the evening. He then made a final call to his family and began another dive at 7:30PM, just as the sun was slipping and sinking below the horizon and darkness was falling.

Warning sign at the entrance of the Vortex Springs cave

Warning sign at the entrance of the Vortex Springs cave

Ben was seen by two other divers and employees of the dive shop, Chuck Cronin and Eduardo Taran as he descended, and they reported that he had been wearing a helmet and lights. Since it seemed by his getup that he was obviously intending to go cave diving, as well as the fact that he was considered to be a fairly experienced regular diver at the site, and he had been suspected of trying to force the gate open in the past, Taran went and unlocked the gate for him, even though it was against the rules to do so and he did not have the requisite qualifications for it. It would be the last time anyone would ever see Ben McDaniels.

The next morning, Ben’s truck was still parked in the dive shop parking lot where it had been left, but with the summer crowds it wasn’t really noticed and raised no suspicion. It was not until the next day and the truck remained that dive shop employees realized something was amiss and notified authorities, who immediately went about sealing off the dive site. An inspection of the area turned up no signs of Ben’s diving equipment, and in his truck were found his wallet with $700 in cash, cell phone, and a dive log outlining several covert cave dives he had made as well as a cave map he had made. The truck was untouched, showing no signs of any struggle or anything amiss. When the beach house where Ben was living was checked to find his dog unfed and the place completely undisturbed, authorities quickly came to the conclusion that Ben had gotten stuck down in the forbidding cave system and drowned.

In the wake of Ben’s disappearance, many experienced divers converged on the site to aid in recovery operations to try and find his body. Over the next few days, these divers would extensively go through the cave system, meticulously checking every tunnel, fissure, and crevasse where Ben could have possibly squeezed into, but no trace of him was found. Professional cave diver and recovery specialist Edd Sorenson flew in and risked his life making 3 separate dives penetrating far beyond what Ben had mapped out, to an estimated 1,700 feet (520 m) into the blackness, scouring every available nook and cranny, yet found no trace of him. During these perilous dives, Sorenson used smaller tanks to allow him to squeeze into more inaccessible areas, yet still he found nothing. There was no sign of the body, and even no evidence of silt being disturbed, as well as no trace of any increased scavenger activity that might signify a corpse. It was as if Ben McDaniel had simply swum off the face of the earth into oblivion.

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Throughout the exhaustive search the only sign of Ben was two discarded extra oxygen tanks left right at the entrance of the cave, which would start the trail of bizarre details in the case that would serve to deepen the mystery. The location of the tanks was odd considering cave divers do not typically leave their extra tanks at the entrance of a cave, but rather at various points along their route in order to aide them in their exit or if there is an emergency. When the tanks were analyzed later, they would prove to contain just pure oxygen, and not the oxygen-gas mix that would typically be in such tanks. Considering that Ben McDaniel was a fairly experienced diver, and albeit without proper cave diving certification had obviously done research beforehand, these details seem odd and out of place. Another curious detail is that Ben was a rather large man, standing 6 feet 1 inch (185 cm) tall and weighing 210 pounds (95 kg). Considering this and the added bulk of his regular sized tanks, it seems impossible that he could have possibly managed to shove himself into areas that could not be searched by other experienced divers, especially without specialized training. Expert diver Sorenson would say of this:

I know what I’m doing and I barely made it through. The last place I searched was pristine, without a mark that a diver had been there. It would be impossible to go through that restriction (narrow tunnel) without making a mark on the floor or ceiling. He’s not in there.

Considering that the expansive, intensive search of the cave by numerous experienced divers covered a total of 36 days, there was the increasingly prevalent idea that he was simply not there, and had at some point exited the water, if he had ever been there a all. What happened then was up to intense debate. One idea was that Ben had been the victim of foul play, and that he had been intentionally drowned, only for the killer to remove the body and dispose of it on land, yet extensive use of cadaver dogs in the vicinity had turned up no sign of a corpse either. Another idea was that the body had somehow drifted out and floated down Vortex Spring’s outflow into Blue Creek and Sandy Creek to the Choctawhatchee River, but a massive search along this area also found no sign of Ben and comprehensive water tests along these waterways for increased bacterial activity that might indicate a rotting corpse came out negative. Yet another idea was that Ben had faked his own death and intentionally vanished in order to escape his considerable debts, but there was no real evidence to back this claim up, and indeed it would later be shown that he had already paid off his substantial debts at the time of his vanishing. His family has also remained adamant that he would have never left behind his beloved dog willingly or subject his family and girlfriend to that.

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In the years since his mysterious vanishing, Ben’s family have become increasingly convinced that he was a victim of foul play, and have hired a private investigator who thinks that his body was removed from the underwater cave before authorities were notified, or that he was killed on land and his body disposed of, with the whole diving thing merely a cover story. Another possibility is that the dive shop employees had found Ben dead and removed his body in order to avoid prosecution. The family have also complained that there is something fishy about the fact that Eduardo Taran, the last person to have seen Ben alive, was released as a person of interest after merely passing a cursory lie detector test, and the family also believes that there are dark implications to the death of the owner of Vortex Springs, Lowell Kelly, who was already considered suspicious himself. After being sentenced to 7 years of probation in 2011 for an incident in which he had severely beaten an employee who had owed him money, Lowell died after being knocked comatose by falling down a flight of stairs and hitting his head. Authorities would subsequently refuse to release any further details on the death or even the results of the autopsy report. Ben’s family believe that the death was not accidental, and is somehow related to his disappearance.

Adding to these suspicious details are findings that many of those connected to the disappearance also have criminal records, and it also seems odd that no one at the dive shop noticed that Ben’s truck was sitting untouched in the parking lot until 2 days later. They firmly believe that both Taran and Cronin, who were the last to see Ben, certainly know more about what happened than they are letting on, although just what that might be remains unclear. For now, the mysterious disappearance of Ben McDaniel remains unsolved.

Another of the more infamous and mysterious and spooky diver vanishings is that of Tom Lonergan, 33, and Eileen Lonergan, 28, a young, adventurous couple from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the United States. The two were veteran, avid divers, and in January of 1998 they were taking a scuba diving vacation at the Great Barrier Reef, in Australia, after just having completed a tour with the Peace Corps working in the South Pacific at Funafuti atoll, in Tuvalu. On January 25, 1998, the Lonergans were with a diving group at a place called St. Crispin’s reef aboard the boat Outer Edge, based out of Port Douglas. After a day of diving, the group boarded the boat for the trek back, and a head count was done, as was common procedure. When there were found to be only 24 people out of the expected 26, it was pointed out that two young divers had just gone in for a quick swim off the bow. The crew assumed that they had just missed them in the count and casually adjusted the count to 26 before heading back to port. Tom and Eileen Lonergan were not among them.

Tom and Eileen Lonergan

Tom and Eileen Lonergan

It was not until 2 days later when something would be found amiss. On January 27, the ship’s skipper, Geoffrey Nairn, noticed some of the couple’s belongings stashed in the Outer Edge’s lost and found bin, including some of their clothes and Tom’s wallet and glasses. A call to the hotel where the couple was staying found that they had not returned yet. When it was finally realized that the Lonergans were actually missing, authorities were contacted and a massive search was launched. Despite a thorough search over 3 days scouring the area for miles around, no sign of the missing couple was found, leading to theories that they had drowned or had been killed by sharks.

In the following weeks and months, the mysterious and well-publicized vanishing would pick up some bizarre clues. Some of the couple’s dive gear was found washed up on a beach at Archers Point, south of Cooktown and around 75 miles from the dive site, but there was still no sign of their bodies and it seemed as if the gear had simply been discarded there upon the beach. There was also found a diver’s slate dated Monday, January 26, at 8am, found in the same vicinity of the diving gear and on which was written the somewhat chilling message:

To anyone … can help us. We have been abandoned on Agincourt Reef by the MV Outer Edge 25/1/98 3pm. Please help us …to rescue us before we die. Help!!!

The Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef

Making things a bit more ominous was the finding that the slate could not have floated on its own, but would have sunk, meaning that it must have been placed there upon the beach intentionally. This has led to some conspiracy theories that the whole disappearance was a cover up for something else, with even the idea floated around that the couple had been CIA agents and had been disappeared on purpose, perhaps because they had stumbled upon information they were not supposed to know.

This is just one of the many theories swirling about the strange vanishing of the Lonergans. Another is that they carried out some sort of suicide pact. Some entries in Tom’s diary were found to be rather suicidal in nature, expressing a desire to die, and Eileen’s diary also contained entries expressing concern for her husband’s deteriorating mental state, and stated in an entry 9 days before the dive was the message that Tom had been exhibiting a “deathwish.” However, the couple, while having some issues, were mostly described as being well adjusted and content by friends and family, and the two had been looking forward to doing a tour for the Peace Corps in Fiji and then settling down in Hawaii.

Another theory is that the two had planned and staged their disappearance. This is somewhat supported by the fact that the dive gear that was found seemed to have been purposefully left on the beach and in close proximity to the dive slate, which as stated would likely not have floated there on its own. Even if it did, why would all of this have drifted off to end up so conveniently close to each other? The head count done aboard the Outer Edge also seems suspicious, as if someone had been bribed to make the count 26. There was also a boat reported to have been in the area at the time of the dive tour, suggesting that they could have possibly been picked up even when their own boat had left them behind. Other evidence pointing to this scenario are alleged sightings of the Lonergans after their alleged disappearance. One owner of a book shop in Port Douglas claimed that the couple had come into her shop on January 27, two days after their vanishing, and yet another sighting placed them at a hotel days after their dive trip at a hotel in Darwin. However, their bank accounts and credit cards remained untouched, and no one ever collected on their insurance policies. Interestingly, Eileen’s father, John Hains, would later claim that the Australian diving industry seemed very eager to push this particular theory forward and to prove that the Lonergans had faked their deaths.

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Then again, it might just be as originally thought; that they drifted out to sea, died of drowning or dehydration, or were devoured in the shark infested waters. In the midst all of the speculation the skipper of the Outer Edge, Nairn, was charged in 1999 with manslaughter due to the negligence leading to the couple’s presumed death and later acquitted. The company that runs the boat was found guilty of negligence by a civil court and ordered to pay a hefty fine. To this day it is unknown what happened to the Lonergans, and their disappearance remains a profound mystery. The case has since become the inspiration for the 2003 film Open Water, which offers one possible scenario in the case. We will probably never know for sure what really happened.

In another odd case, in 2015, former soldier and Connecticut National Guardsman Joshua Michael Devine, 36, was on a diving trip in Thailand that he had been looking forward to for months. On April 11th, Devine was on the boat with his Thai wife, Tassana Devine, headed towards the pristine and picturesque Similan Islands, where he had hoped to see some whale sharks. At some point during the night, witnesses aboard the boat claimed that at around 4 AM Devine had become inebriated and that he had been acting very aggressive and paranoid, including allegedly yelling at his wife and smashing a light in their room in an effort to find what he claimed to be “secret cameras” everywhere. As a result, other passengers claim they forcefully put him in a room by himself to allow him to calm down, but when they returned 15 minutes later he was simply gone. The whole boat was searched, but no sign of Devine could be found. The whole, odd report immediately elicited suspicion from his family, with his sister, Jennifer Bakowski, saying:

He’s a master diver, rescue diver, a dive instructor. He’s just the most responsible person I know, and for him to get drunk before going into the water, especially within a couple hours…

Joshua Michael Devine

Joshua Michael Devine

Devine’s mother was similarly suspicious of the whole story, saying: “This is not Josh, and it didn’t happen from drinking because he doesn’t drink before a dive.” Other strange details about the incident emerged as well, such as the fact that even after the search of the boat, crew waited an extraordinarily long time before actually contacting authorities about it, and the whole attitude on board seemed to be as if it were no real big deal. Bakowski elaborated further, saying:

At no point did they stop the boat to look for him. They searched the boat up and down, and for whatever reason, waited six hours before contacting the Marine police, and by that time, they were now six hours from the location he went in the water. They continued on with the rest of their vacation like nothing happened.

The dive boat itself claims that they thoroughly went through the area with spotlights but were unable to find anything. The Royal Thai Police and Thai Royal Navy later arrived on the scene and took over the search operation, searching the area with boats, rescue divers and aircraft and questioning the crew and other 5 divers who had been on the tour. After several days of intensively searching the area they were not able to find any sign of the missing Devine. The missing man’s family became more suspicious of the whole incident when they interviewed other passengers themselves, who said he had been drunk, yet could not recall actually having seen him drink anything. This, plus the lethargic response of authorities to their inquiries on the matter, has led them to suspect that foul play is involved and some sort of cover-up has been put into effect. The whole meandering investigation has been criticized by the family, as has been the behavior of the tour company, which continued the tour as if nothing had happened when authorities were done with their interviews, with Bakowski saying:

They allowed the boat to carry on for five days, so if there was any evidence of foul play, it’s gone now. It’s pretty sloppy investigative work, if I say so myself.

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Considering that authorities and Devine’s own wife have refused to elaborate any more on the case, and although the family fights on for answers, it seems that Joshua Devine’s ultimate fate may forever remain a mystery. The interesting thing here is that Devine was an extremely skilled and experienced scuba diver, yet still managed to disappear without a trace, and it seems that diving ability ultimately has nothing to do with one’s susceptibility to vanishing off the face of the earth without a trace. Another such case concerns the strange disappearance of renowned Russian free diver Natalia Molchanova, 53, in 2015, with free diving being a harrowing sport which involves swimming down to truly dizzying depths without the aide of modern scuba equipment such as oxygen tanks. The accomplished diver had been competitively free diving for 13 years and was the holder of 41 world records, including those she won into her 50s and including records such as holding her breath underwater for 7 minutes and 16 seconds, and at her best she could hold it for over 9 minutes, a well as the record for the first woman to descend to 100 meters. Molchanova was widely considered to be one of the world’s greatest and most respected free divers, making her disappearance all the more bewildering.

Molchanova was on a casual dive off the coast of La Savina at Poiniente de es Freus, near the island of Formentera, near Ibiza, in Spain, where she was in the midst of teaching two students about free diving. At some point the students lost track of her as she was on modest dive to a depth of around 115 to 130 feet, which was rather tame and routine for a professional diver of her caliber, with a world record 232 feet under her belt. Additionally, the visibility that day was described as being very good, making it odd that her safety diver should lose visual contact with her. Whatever the reason, at some point everyone lost track of where Molchanova was and she never resurfaced. Subsequent searches by divers and the coast guard turned up absolutely nothing. No one is quite sure what happened to her. It could have been a strong current that swept her away, or perhaps she blacked out or was injured somehow and sank down into the dark depths. Neither is it known is she died at that time or found herself drifting about alone out in the deep blue sea. All that anyone really knows is that Natalia Molchanova has never been seen again, and her vanishing remains a mystery.

Natalia Molchanova

Natalia Molchanova

The mystery of these vanishings will likely remain elusive to us. These are the brave souls who have dove and swum off to destinations unknown, taking the sights they have seen off into inscrutable mystery. Surely the sea and waterways of our earth pose challenges often beyond our ability to handle, but why do they on occasion seem so hungry for us? Is this just the violent natural order of things, tides, the dark, and ravenous beasts, or did these vanished people have help along the way? Did these mysterious people simply slip away into that little explored dark blue we call the oceans, slowly fading out as they fell off into the darkness as some astronaut might drift off into the blackness of space? Whatever the answers to these questions might be, the sea is a vast, hungry maw of a place, mostly unexplored and completely untamed, perhaps waiting for its next victim or perhaps just the keeper of vast secrets we will never know.