The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office said Patrick Peacock and Chris Rittenmeyer went diving on Sunday afternoon with a third man, who reported the duo missing.
Search and rescue divers found their bodies the next day in a “very dangerous and complex area of the cave system,” the sheriff’s office said.
Peacock and Rittenmeyer had come from Fort Lauderdale for a three-day dive at Eagle’s Nest, a famous dive spot near Weeki Wachee, located in the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area, about 60 miles north of Tampa.
Both men were experienced divers who had both dived Eagle’s Nest several times, the sheriff said.
The third diver, Justin Blakeley, told authorities the three divers were supposed to meet at 3 p.m. Sunday, but Peacock and Rittenmeyer failed to show. Blakeley went back to the meeting spot every 30 minutes throughout the afternoon before calling police at 6 p.m.
Becky Kagan Schott, an experienced cave diver and professional photographer who has dived Eagle’s Nest about 20 times in her career, said the cave is a destination for many divers.
“Eagle’s Nest is an alluring cave and many divers aspire to dive there someday,” she said. “It’s like dropping down into a whole new world as you swim through giant passageways that have taken tens of thousands of years to form.”
Kagan Schott also cautioned that training and experience is paramount before attempting a dive at Eagle’s Nest.
“Certified cave divers train hard so that when issues arise they have the muscle memory and experience to deal with them,” Kagan Schott said. “Even with that experience things can go wrong, but as cave divers we all know the risks before we go.”
According to Kagan Schott, 125 feet below the surface, near the area known to divers as the Debris Cone, is a permanently posted sign with an image of the Grim Reaper along with the stern warning, “There’s nothing in this cave worth dying for! Do not go beyond this point.”
The area was off limits for divers from 1999 to 2003, according to the St. Petersburg Times, which said the area had been compared with Mount Everest because it is beautiful but difficult.
Diving expert Chuck Walls told CNN affiliate WFTS that only highly trained divers should attempt to dive there. He added that even skilled divers can be affected at dangerous depths.
“It’s called martini’s law for us old timers. For the new comer, it’s nitrogen narcosis,” Walls told the Tampa-based station. “You have a lack of judgment and lose some of your inhibitions. Some people may even freeze up and do what we call ‘white out.'”
Police have not said how the men died.
The two divers were found more than 250 below the water’s surface. Autopsy results have not been disclosed.
Their deaths appear to be the first since a father and son died at the Eagle’s Nest on Christmas 2013. According to CNN affiliate WFLA, they were trying out diving equipment they received as presents.
WFTS reported some people have called for the area to be closed again while cave diving enthusiasts have said people know the risks and the site should be open for the people who have the training and experience.
When CNN inquired with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, asking whether the site might be closed, spokeswoman Susan Smith didn’t comment. She offered the department’s sympathies to the relatives of the two divers.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to these families,” she wrote in an email.