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Divers Set Depth Record in Missouri’s Roaring River Spring

The team reached 472 feet — and there’s no end in sight.

By Sheila Harris | Authored On April 13, 2022
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Divers Set Depth Record in Missouri’s Roaring River Spring

Diver topside Roaring River Spring

A member of the exploratory team floats at the surface of Roaring River Spring.

Randall Purdy Photography / TL Bass Telepictures

A group of divers associated with rebreather manufacturer KISS Rebreathers set a depth record in November 2021, by descending 472 feet into the mouth of Missouri’s Roaring River Spring. Their feat took them into uncharted territory and elevated the spring to the status of deepest in the nation.

“There’s still no bottom nor source tunnel in sight,” said head diver and KISS Rebreathers CEO, Mike Young.

A previous national record, as ranked by Caving News, was set in 2013 at Phantom Springs Cave in West Texas, where divers reached a depth of 462 feet.

Roaring River Spring, rumored by locals to be bottomless, is located in Roaring River State Park in the southwest Missouri Ozarks, near Cassville. The spring pumps out an average of 20.4 million gallons of water per day, part of which is diverted into adjacent Roaring River Trout Hatchery, constructed in 1910. The remainder feeds Roaring River, where anglers line banks during open trout season.

Permission for monthly exploratory dives by the KISS team was granted by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Roaring River State Park officials in early 2021. Their initial dive was made last May.

Because the spring and its surrounding cave is situated in a deep valley, it is susceptible to seasonal flooding and a high water flow. A rate of over 200 cubic feet per second (CFS) prevented the divers from penetrating the narrow, subsurface stricture which exists at a depth of 225 feet until August, when the flow dropped to 21 CFS.

Beyond the stricture, Mike Young and fellow diver and cartographer, Jon Lillestolen, discovered a cavern so large there were no discernable walls nor floors. The ceiling, too, disappeared after a short distance.

“It’s scary big in there,” was Young’s initial reaction.

Underwater photographer Randall Purdy says the subsurface cavern could easily house a 40-story building.

Cave survey

Gayle Orner, of Madison, Wisconsin — the only female member of the KISS Rebreathers team — surveys the upper cavern of Roaring River Cave in Roaring River State Park, near Cassville, Missouri.

Randall Purdy Photography / TL Bass Telepictures

Divers initially explored Roaring River Spring in 1979. A second team followed in 1991. Neither team, however, was able to pass through the restriction at the 225-foot depth mark. Young attributes his success to the compact rebreathers the KISS team uses.

“Traditional SCUBA gear is too bulky to allow divers to go through the stricture,” Young said. “And, even with rebreathers, if the water pressure coming through the stricture is too high, we can’t swim against it.”

Achieving a record-setting depth in the cave has not been the sole objective of the KISS team’s explorations.

“We’re surveying the caverns so we can create new maps for the DNR and Roaring River State Park,” Young said.

Documentaries of the divers’ explorations are also being produced by TL Bass Telepictures in Bentonville, Arkansas. A shorter version will be used in the park’s nature center; a longer one is planned for sale to the public.

With permits renewed for the 2022 season, the KISS Rebreathers team will continue their monthly, weekend explorations through November of 2022.

“I can’t wait to see how deep they will go this year,” park superintendent Joel Topham said.