Eric Hutcheson was drowning. He lay on the roadside near his mangled motorcycle, with his jaw and facial bones crushed as a result of travelling face first into the side of a car. Sinus cavities collapsed, blood poured into his throat, impairing his breathing. His brain, uninjured thanks to the helmet his daughter, Erika, made him wear, allowed him to fully experience the sensation of drowning in his own blood. The irony of the accident, in 2000, is that Eric was one of the world’s most sought-after cave divers. Known for exploring and mapping underwater cave systems for miles underground, often where no man had gone before — breathing was his specialty.
In underwater cave exploration, everything is carefully planned and backed up.
“You have multiple breathing apparatus, in case of an equipment failure,” Eric says. He has used as many as seven to 10 regulators on a long dive. “The backups have backups,” he says, “outside of the water, a person has two breathing apparatus, his mouth and nose.” After his accident, this expert cave diver had neither.
“There were several times in the helicopter on the way to the hospital, when I didn’t think I’d make it,” he says, “I couldn’t breathe.” His facial bones reconstructed with metal plates, he came out of surgery virtually unscarred on the outside. On the inside, scar tissue left his ear canals hard and inflexible. He survived the accident, but, unable to clear his ears underwater, it was a death sentence for his diving career.
Eric Hutcheson grew up exploring Florida’s waterways, snorkeling the reefs and lime rock pits in his hometown of Miami. Ocala introduced him to caves and springs, which he describes as “windows into the aquifer.” Obtaining the necessary training and certifications to become a spelunker, or cave diver, Eric’s artistic abilities allowed him to turn his passion into a profession as an underwater cartographer, and artist.
“The first maps of underwater caves were very crude drawings.” Eric says, “I knew I could do better.” Eric credits his grandfather, an artist and architectural engineer, with encouraging his artistic talents as a child. “He inspired me as a kid. He always set me up with paper and pencils,” Eric says, “he designed buildings, bridges, and race tracks, so it’s in my
blood.” In 1990, Eric produced his first underwater map of Silver Glen Springs, and the snowball started rolling. He was commissioned to do another and another, producing hundreds of documents throughout the 1990’s mapping springs and aquifers in the United States, Mexico, and throughout the Caribbean.
Eric’s maps provide vital information for water resource management. Knowing where the aquifers are located, they can be protected from being compromised from above.
“It’s insane the places that Eric was able to get to,” says environmentalist Guy Marwick, founding director of the Silver River Museum, which includes an exhibit of Eric’s cave diving equipment and maps. “He gave us a better picture of where these systems went, from tiny passages where the roof had collapsed, to huge caverns so large you could drop a school auditorium into them.”
In addition, Eric and his colleagues collected vast amounts of data as they explored a spring. Water samples, geologic samples, biological data, and archeological fossils teach us about our past, while helping us to protect the springs’ future. Through Eric’s work, we can tell where things above ground, like sewage plants, are polluting our drinking water.
Eric’s explorations took him miles into springs and aquifers, often having to push his air tank ahead of him through spaces too small to carry it on his back. He likens cave diving to space exploration because he often explored areas where no human had been before, riding the edge of the envelope. The risk was tremendous, and he has lost colleagues to the caves.
To travel so far into cave systems, divers stage air tanks, placing them at intervals under water in preliminary dives. While mapping the world’s longest known underwater cave system, the Nohoch Nah Chich, or “Giant Birdcage,” in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Eric and his team explored some 50 miles of passages. Such exploration required meticulous planning and extreme patience.
To map a cave, Eric unreeled a guide line that is standard procedure for cave divers to help them find their way out. His was also used as a measuring tape. Using underwater writing slates, he conducted a basic tape and compass survey as he explored, noting the measurements of each crevice, ledge, nook and cavern as he passed through, and sketching reliefs as he swam. Once on land, Eric transferred the measurements and drawings onto paper.
Eric’s maps were important to geologists, biologists and environmentalists, but they also became popular as works of art. The artist within him was emerging.
“I have all these images tattooed onto my brain,” Eric says, “that the vast majority of land lubbers will never see.” He had decided to share them with the world through his art and began working on a series, “Visions from the Caves,” just as the motorcycle accident marked the end of his diving career.
“I could no longer clear my ears under water, due to all the scar tissue,” Eric says, “You can’t dive if you can’t clear your ears (to equalize the air pressure in your head.)” Eric was devastated.
In 2003, he turned his creative talents to his family’s business, making custom architectural moldings and castings for the high-end housing market. The housing business was going strong, and his work was sought after. Things were looking up.
Then, in 2005, Eric and his wife, Sharon, took Erika to Discovery Cove in Orlando. It was Eric who had the biggest discovery.
“There’s this artificial reef, and down at the bottom is a window looking into the shark tank,” Eric says, “I swam down to the window, and my ears popped clear.”
He spent the rest of the trip swimming up and down clearing his ears over and over. The possibility of being able to dive again was tempting, but he had been through so much, and had moved on and built another, successful career. “I was so booked with jobs, I had to ignore the urge to dive again,” he says. Then came the decline of the housing market, and a call from artist and author Margaret Ross Tolbert. Tolbert invited Eric to be a contributor to her book, Aquiferious, which portrays 12 North Florida springs through the arts of painting, photography, poetry and essays.
“Margaret inspired me to pull out all my equipment, which had been in storage for 10 years,” he says. He’s done a few test dives, “just enough to test my physiology,” and everything has gone, well, swimmingly. Eric now plans a return to both diving and his art. Eric’s agenda is to showcase the beauty of our springs in a positive way. “I’ll continue to collect the data for the scientists,” he says, “but I want to show people these images I have seen and inspire people to preserve the springs.” Eric feels that through his art, he can do the most to make a difference for our planet.” I had this period where I was not active for a decade, and now I feel this is the pivotal decade that I can do my part to make a difference.”
Ocala Magazine, September, 2010