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March 17, 2008

The Florida Springs

Carol took another flock of her students for certification to Ginnie Springs, Florida, and I was reminded how much I like those springs. And also how peculiar it is that a good deal of my diving experience to-date is in the springs of Florida and not some of the more exotic dive destinations like the Carribbeans. So while she was assessing the skills of her students I began searching the web for more information on the springs, and as usual, one thing led to another and before I knew it I had spent the entire weekend just reading about the various springs.

It's really an amazing thing, those Florida springs. I mean, when it comes to Florida, most people think of sandy beaches, the keys, spring break madness, alligators, swamps, and -- if they are old enough -- perhaps Miami Vice. They'd probably associate Florida with diving, but in the ocean and not inland and certainly not in some of the clearest, freshest water anywhere. But that is what you get in Florida's springs.

How did it all happen in what most people think is just swampland? Well, the northern part of Florida has a vast underground aquifer with several hundred springs. Together they discharge almost ten billion gallons of fresh water a day, with some of the larger ones contributing hundreds of millions of gallons to that total each day. It's all part of a giant storage system. The water originates as rainfall that then penetrates limestone where it is filtered and accumulates in fissures and holes. Combined with carbon dioxide and decaying plant matter, the water becomes mildly acidic and, over many thousands of years, enlarges cracks and holes and creates passages. What it all means is that there is a vast underground system of caverns and caves, many interconnected, in northern Florida and this is the source of all those springs.

The term "springs" is perhaps a bit inadequate because the vast freshwater resources contained in the Floridian limestone system creates all sorts of natural wonders. There are, of course, springs, and they often come right out of the ground. Somehow I associate springs and rivers as something that originates higher up, in the mountains, and then makes its way towards the sea. But Florida's springs come from underground. When you dive, you often see holes at the bottom, with water pushing out of them. Sometimes it's just little boils in the sand. You see them in the clear water, see individual grains of sand twirling around, and feel the flow when you put your hand on them.

But all that water also created grand caverns, nearly endless caves, and also many sinkholes. When we think of sinkholes we generally think of the evening news reporting on a hole in the ground that all of a sudden opened up, collapsing a road or swallowing a home. Those sort of things are usually blamed on human transgressions such as draining or over-using the watertable. However, sinkholes also happen naturally when water slowly eats away at limestone until a ceiling collapses and forms an open entry into the underground spring system.

A good explanation of all this can be found on the "The Journey of Water" webpage of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

What does all this mean to divers? It means that Florida has perhaps some of the best diving in the world, and it is in places where you'd never expect it. Instead of sandy beaches, tropical islands, and dive boats, Florida diving seems all shallow rivers and small ponds, some of which covered in duck weed and hard to spot. Once inside, the water is usually crystal clear. That's because it is not stagnant like in a lake, but constantly replaced by the vast volume of water from the underground springs. This phenomenon is exploited by a good number of popular parks and campgrounds located around those springs. People go there to swim and snorkel and just have a good time.

To me, this is what makes Florida's springs so fascinating. There is endless variety. To some people they offer an enjoyable get-away in one of the well-maintained parks with their lush, prehistoric-looking groves and clear, refreshing ponds. Some come to watch the Manatees which like to hang out in the springs. And some dive the caverns and the caves where things can get quite extreme. Manatee Springs state park, for example, both contains a friendly pond and the entrance to a vast underwater caves system that's testing the very limits of courage, skills and endurance in the exploration of many thousands of feet of labyrinthine cave.

During my online explorations I was reminded again of the thin line that separates harmless, enjoyable fun from entry into a deep twilight zone that's as challenging and dangerous as exploring outer space. When Carol and I last dove the Catfish Hotel sink in Manatee Springs state park, I both marveled at the dreamy underwater world that looked like right out of a Pixar movie and shivered knowing that the dark cavern at its bottom was the starting point of Sheck Exley's explorations into the black unknown of endless caves and also where just a few days prior a young man had died when the water had sucked him into the cave.

Ginnie Springs where Carol certified her class likewise has a bright and a dark side. The water in the small spring/pond area is gin-clear, as the location's name implies, but just yards away, underground, lies a massive cave system that has claimed many lives. None other than the great Sheck Exley almost died at Ginnie early in his cave diving career. And, as she later found out, a week before Carol's certification trip, a cave diver had perished deep inside the Ginnie system. Sometimes, a dark side lies just beneath the sunny, friendly surface, and most never even know it's there.

I was reminded yet again of the interesting role Florida's springs play when I found a website dedicated to Florida Springs with almost 50 trip reports and descriptions of springs, rivers and sinkholes in the state's northwest, north and central regions. The site offers an hourlong DVD, entitled "Florida Springs -- The Unexplored Florida" on a good dozen of the more interesting springs. I ordered it and it arrived just a couple of days later. Watching it was an experience. Not only did I see some of the places I had been to myself, but I was reminded again of the secret nature of those treasures. Even the state parks are mostly visited for picnics or swimming and not that many divers know about them.

I also realized once again how diverse the springs are. Some are popular and easily accessible whereas others are virtually unknown or closed off to public access. Some are bright and friendly, others look dark and forbidding. In some you are not allowed to dive at all, in others you pay a fee at the park ranger's office, and some require special permission. According to the DVD, there are even some where you need to check in with the local sheriff and get permission there.

All of this made me want to go back. I'll most likely never dive a cave, will never see what Carol saw, but I may get my cavern certification and poke around some of the better known ones. I cannot wait.

Posted by conradb212 at March 17, 2008 04:31 PM

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