Every year, several thousand novice divers from around the world sojourn to an artesian spring in the town of Santa Rosa, N.M. It is known as the “City of Natural Lakes,” with bodies of water big and small, ideal for summertime activity.

The city’s biggest aqueous draw is the 80-foot-deep Blue Hole, where legend has it Billy the Kid used to go for swims. The spring boasts water so clear that it is allegedly possible to tell a nickel from a bottle cap when looking down at the bottom. For this reason, the spot is ideal for the relatively unskilled; as a Washington Post travel writer put it, the sinkhole is “as safe as a bathtub.”

Not so, however, for a web of underwater caves that slinks through Blue Hole. Local lore says they stretch as far south as Texas, but that remains unconfirmed, as scientists have yet to discern their true pathways. Two divers in training died in one of the caves’ countless unexplored passages in 1976, and they have been sealed off from the public ever since.

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While searching for the bodies back then, New Mexico State Police divers made a crude map of the caves, but most of the system has remained inscrutable.

Shane Thompson, a Navy veteran who grew up diving in the Florida Keys, was hoping to change this. He and another member of the ADM Exploration Foundation had ventured into the caves last weekend for the purposes of drawing a complete map of its winding tunnels. But Thompson never resurfaced.

On Thursday, authorities told the Associated Press that the 43-year-old appears to have died from accidental drowning. Autopsy results may not be available for weeks.

“Apparently something went horribly wrong, and he started to panic,” Santa Rosa Police Chief Jude Gallegos said.

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Thompson was about 160 feet below the surface when the incident occurred, but it is unclear what really happened. Gallegos called the caves akin to “a maze — kind of looks like intestines.”

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Thompson had more than 20 years of experience working as a deep technical rebreather diver, and first worked as a diving instructor in the Navy, according to his bio on Advanced Underwater Training.

Thompson’s family told the AP that he had earned numerous certifications, because diving was what he loved to do.

On several occasions, he helped recover the bodies of divers who disappeared in the depths: once in 2005, near a sunken warship, and again in 2012 off La Jolla Shores.

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But this time Thompson was the one who needed to be found.

Santa Rosa Police Officer Mike Guana told the Guadalupe County Communicator that at one point, Thompson and fellow diver Mike Young were wedged in a narrow passageway. After Young swam down, he noticed that Thompson continued upward, took a wrong turn and became trapped in an unmapped area.

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By the time Young reached him, Thompson had died.

The most recent post on Thompson’s Facebook page was a photograph of an article in the Communicator describing his team’s underwater exploration. Curt Bowen, president of the foundation that led the dives, told the AP that he plans to complete a three-dimensional map of everything they found.

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This may not be necessary, however. The last person to see Thompson alive thinks the caves should be sealed off permanently.

Guana told the Communicator: “The word that was given to me that day was these are the most dangerous caves they’ve ever dived anywhere. [Young] recommends to our city officials never, ever to let anybody back in those caves.”

This article has been updated to clarify that it is unknown how far the caves’ underwater path really stretches. A previous version of the piece stated they reach Texas.

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