Underwater Wakulla- November 13, 2014
Wilburn "Sonny" Cockrell By GREGG STANTON
Wednesday, November 12, 2014 at 5:00 pm (Updated: November 12, 5:00 pm)
You may have heard that Sonny Cockrell passed away last month at the age of 73. He was a resident of Tallahassee in his retirement, but hardly inactive in his passion for underwater archaeology. Professional organizations have eulogized him on many websites as a pioneer in the topic of early man archaeology and the bastion against Spanish shipwreck salvaging in Florida.
He was, for a while, Florida's Underwater Archaeologist.
I first met Sonny back in the 1970s when he worked near Venice, Florida on the Warm Mineral Springs human occupation site. My wife, once an archaeologist, spent the 1976 field season working for Sonny, during the excavation of the 70-foot ledge where they found a human burial site. Her team also mapped springs creating a three-dimensional map.
I was a graduate student at FSU back then, and would drive down to visit her. I was honored when he invited me to help on the site. I held the underwater camera mostly, but it was a thrill as Sonny's research used advanced underwater research technology and techniques I would later incorporate into my classes. Later I would take my Applications of Diving to Research students down to Venice for a few days of practical experience on such research.
When he joined the faculty at Manatee Community College, he took the research project with him. With legislative funding, he expanded the project and pressed deeper into the 200-plus-foot deep site. He began excavating at the 160-foot depth near the top of the debris cone in the middle of the spring. Warm Mineral Springs has a temperature of 90-plus degrees at that depth, with preserving minerals that stabilized cultural materials in its 30,000 year-old deposits.
Sonny invited me down to dive and photograph the cave entrance. On air, which is all we had back then, the narcosis was challenging. After a few pictures, we drifted off topic and only when my watch alarm woke me up, did I realize we both had fallen asleep in the deep, dark, warm spring. After a lengthy exit, we agreed never to take such risks.
One of his staff, before we knew anything about the challenges of decompression stress, returned from depth to the 30-foot decompression stop, coughed, and passed out. He was recovered to the surface and rushed to Shands Hyperbaric Chamber in Gainesville and survived, but with deficits. The ensuing funding period saw his project moved by the Legislature to FSU and under my risk management care. Much of his budget went to medical bills which pressured his staff to regroup.
Our friendship was strained and then lost when I began to exert safety management practices that Sonny was not comfortable implementing. But over the following year, these changes were put in place: A resident Dive Safety Officer, a resident hyperbaric chamber, as yet untested (back then) Trimix and Nitrox breathing gas, and more. He would rail at me that we were making history on every front, then expect less supervision. I devoted several of my years to supporting his project, but could never satisfy him. Eventually, the State funding dried up and he moved on.
One day, out of the blue, two 18-wheeler trucks pulled up to my FSU facility and unloaded tons of dive technology. I was asked to sign for it, sight unseen! For the next two weeks I took graduate students into a complete inventory of the Warm Mineral Springs technology. We discovered many interesting masteries, such as why pumping 100 percent through an air compressor is not advised (we found the ruptured pieces). We recorded serial numbers and photographed (with my personal camera) the entire $30,000-plus inventory.
Six months later, an anonymous call to the Comptroller's Office accused the FSU Marine Lab Director and me of selling off this inventory for personal gain. I was never thanked for my thoughtful move to conduct the inventory, but I was escorted off campus until the investigation could review the thick binder that I had placed on my office shelf.
Sonny and I met one last time as friends years later at the surplus sale of much of the once grand University's Dive Program inventory after we were both retired. Neither one of us bought a thing.