By Phil Tatman
Denzel James "Doc'' Dockery is justifiably proud of Vortex Spring, the popular swimming and scuba diving spot in Holmes County that has made him a wealthy man.
At 83, he is able to reflect on the hard work it took from his family to make Vortex Spring what it is.
"It was a swamp when I bought the land, $4,800 for the first 100 acres and an option on the other 320 acres,'' he said. "We opened in 1972 and spent 10 years dredging it to make the spring and find the cavern. Vortex became a money maker when it became a dive spot.''
Dockery's daughter, Connie White, puts it more succinctly.
"This place was a bug-infested wasteland when mom and dad bought it,'' White said. “There were party-line telephones, no electricity, we had to buy power poles and the original entrance was through a working dairy farm. What would eventually lead into the cave was nothing but a hole the size of a human head.''
Swimmers now enjoy the Florida spring -- always 68 degrees -- because there are lots of toys: a diving board, an old-fashioned trapeze rope and a zip line. Paddle boats and canoes can be rented.
But Vortex Spring scuba diving is what attracts people from all over.
"We have lots of customers that come from Pensacola, Mobile and New Orleans,'' White said. “We had a group of 120 from Germany, France and Switzerland earlier this year. We are getting people from the Czech Republic and other parts of eastern Europe, too.''
The cave is 140 feet deep and goes in 280 feet with a rope line to a locked gate. Special scuba training is necessary to enter the cave and only the most experienced divers are given the key that opens the gate to the infinity that lies beyond.
A radius of five miles drains into the spring and some strange sounds are heard underwater.
"Vortex was almost called Piano Spring,'' White said. “The noise air bubbles make when they hit the limestone walls sounds like tapping on piano keys.''
Scuba instruction is offered from beginner to advanced cave diving.
"I like Vortex because it has a lot of natural platforms that tend to relieve the anxiety of new divers,'' said John Burton, 24, a Vortex Spring scuba instructor from Panama City. “This is a confined setting, unlike the Florida Keys, with no tides or currents. But, there is a fairly strong water flow inside the cave.''
Douglas Cain and Barry Allen were surveying the Vortex cave.
"We have been going in and videoing what we are doing since April,'' said Cain, a Pensacola resident who spent 20 years in the Marine Corps. “We have not yet gotten past midway at 950 feet in. At least, we think that is midway. Nobody has been to the end. We had to take extra stage cylinders just to get that far.''
Allen is a Crestview resident and Cain's diving mentor.
"Vortex is great because it has everything,'' Allen said. “The staff is professional. There are nice places to stay and there is everything a diver needs. Now that the kids are back in school, the water is crystal clear on the weekdays.''
Cain calls Vortex "our hometown cave.''
"We're seeing stuff you don't usually see in other underwater caves,'' Cain said. “There are isopods and amphipods, crustaceans that the eels eat. I think there might even be another Florida cave system in there.''
Vortex Spring offers three air-conditioned lodges -- Grandview, Pinewood and Otter Creek -- with dormitories on the bottom floor that can sleep 18. Three cabins sleep six each. And there are numerous campsites available with power, water and public restrooms.
"We try to keep things low key, very country here,'' White said. “We have 79 open grills and we are building more picnic tables. We have a large pavilion that just hosted a medium-sized wedding.''
The family let another entity manage the property in 2007 and by 2012 it was nearing foreclosure. Vortex returned to the Dockerys through a mediated agreement in October 2012.
"We dropped the admission price for swimming from $10 to $6. Diving stayed at $20,'' White said.
Activity at Vortex Spring continues, despite the recent passing, at 81, of Doc's wife, Ruth.
"Ruth was my partner and I miss her so much,'' Doc said. “But I think her spirit is here in all the smiles and laughter this place brings.''
When You Go...
1517 Vortex Spring Ln.
Ponce De Leon, Fla. 32455
Phone: (850) 836-4979
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