Springs Eternal

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Florida's natural springs offer diving, glass bottom boat rides, swimming, tubing and more.

They're part mystery, part muse, overgrown with wild beauty and teeming with remarkable creatures above and below the water. They're Florida's natural springs, a backdrop to the fragile unfolding of nature and a playground for people who delight in passing time in the great outdoors.

As if beaches weren't blessing enough, Florida is endowed with almost 700 natural springs, some gushing with millions of gallons of water per minute, and others barely seeping up from the ground. For some, a visit to a spring is to spend a summer day swimming, tubing and snorkeling long past fingers and toes have shriveled in the exhilarating coolness.

Naturalists and birders flock to the springs for sightings of native and rare wildlife. Still others are lured for therapeutic reasons. Much like early Floridians who were so mystified by water bubbling upward from the ground, as if from nowhere, they considered them magical and curative. These last best places have something for everyone.


ROMANCE ON THE WATER

I was skeptical, however, that a spring could be a setting for romance, so I booked a sunset dinner cruise for my husband and myself at the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park near Tallahassee.

We had visited during the day, taking the guided jungle cruise for encounters with great blue herons, cormorants and, yes, lots of scaly alligators. As one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world, Wakulla also offers glass-bottom boat tours over the spring, where you can see to depths of 125 feet. To peer down into that "bowl of liquid light," as writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas aptly described, is to be awakened to an underworld of red ludwigia and wide-bladed eel grass, of alligator gar and apple snails, all suspended in translucent splendor. Out of the water, the view is just as breathtaking: ancient cypress trees poke knotty knees out of tannin-tinted water; wild rice and Spanish moss hanging from majestic oaks sway in the breeze.

At nighttime, the sights and sounds are different. The cruise begins as daylight dims, with a sun orange as embers falling behind the pines. During dusk, the landscape is shrouded in mystery. What you no longer see clearly, you hear: the shrieks of great horned owlets calling for food, the splashes of jumping mullet, the bellowing of alligators echoing across the water. We glided down the river for more than an hour, bathed in moonlight and awed by the busyness of the spring's nocturnal residents.

Returning to the dock was bittersweet: we could have trolled along on the water all night, holding hands, but we also knew that dinner awaited back at the Moorish-style lodge on property. At a table for two in the corner, we dined on prime rib and shrimp, relishing our time alone and agreeing that Wakulla was, indeed, conducive to romance - next time, we would book a room and stay the night.


DIVERS' DELIGHT

It seems that Ginnie Springs, the "world's favorite freshwater dive," also rates in the romance department, since divers claim a lifelong love affair with Ginnie, as she is affectionately called. Running parallel to the Santa Fe River near High Springs, Ginnie Springs is a series of seven freshwater springs, four of which are diveable.

One of the most visited is Ginnie Basin, a giant bowl of turquoise water rivaling that found in the South Pacific. Though postcard pretty, the main attraction is at the bottom: Ginnie Cavern, the mouth of a 150-foot-long run that connects the basin to the nearby river. Accessibility and water clarity make this one of the few caverns in the world considered safe for exploration by divers who lack formal cavern or cave diver training. Crystal-clear water, characterized by Jacques Cousteau as "visibility forever," and walls of highly reflective limestone make it easy for light from above to illuminate the cavern's upper room. In the back, the "Ballroom" features sponges and a perfect example of a carved phreatic tube, the most common form of underwater cave formation.

More experienced divers can explore the Devil Spring system, accessible from a four-foot-wide fracture at the head of the run. Inside are geologic formations unique to the Floridian aquifer and water so crystal-clear that you can count the leaves on the trees overhead.


ARTFUL INTERPRETATION

If art imitates life, what better place, then, to seek inspiration than at a natural spring? Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park - above and below the water- is one of the most photographed and painted natural attractions in the state. Located an hour and a half north of Tampa on the Central West coast, Homosassa Springs has been popular since the 1940s, when the railroad would stop and let passengers off to see the thousands of fish that would congregate in the springs. Over time, the park has evolved into a refuge for injured and orphaned wildlife, including endangered manatees that thrive in the balmy 72-degree water. Boardwalks zigzag the park, giving visitors a bird's-eye view of black bears, hippo and alligators. Visiting children can descend into the underwater observatory, or "fish bowl," below the water's surface to see endangered manatees and the interesting mix of saltwater and freshwater fish.


SPRINGS FEVER

Silver Springs might not be Florida's oldest tourist attraction, but it's close to it. Native Americans gathered at the springs for thousands of years, but the first northern settlers started visiting in 1860 as word of the crystal-clear waters just east of Ocala spread north. After Hullam Jones invented the glass-bottom boat here in 1878 by installing a glass-viewing box on the flat bottom of a dugout canoe, tourists started flocking to the springs and have been doing so ever since.

When I first visited Silver Springs as a kid, I was thrilled at the idea of gliding down the river in a glass-bottom boat and astounded by the strange watery world I saw passing underneath. Returning as an adult, I assumed the "wow" factor would greatly decrease. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. Though it had changed little, the boat ride was still fun. I found myself counting alligators and squealing at the sight of silver shimmers of fish darting through the true-blue springs. Silver Springs is all the more alluring because of its Hollywood history. Dozens of movies have been filmed here, including The Yearling,The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarzan and over one hundred episodes of Sea Hunt.

A full-fledged theme park and wildlife rehabilitation center, Silver Springs has a slew of rides and activities to please all personalities. My new favorites include the lighthouse ride, with its panoramic views of the park, and the afternoon alligator and crocodile feedings, where the hissing and snapping of the park's resident saw-tooths alone is worth the admission.


HOLY COWS

The largest spring on the St. Johns River, Blue Spring maintains a year-round temperature of 72 degrees, the perfect winter environment for the endangered manatee. On any given day, about 20 of these gentle giants are swimming somewhere in or around the springs. Last December, there were a whopping 300 recorded.

With the numbers in my favor, I headed to the park on a sunny morning in early November. I was hardly at the end of the boardwalk when I spotted my first manatee. Georgia, as she is affectionately known, hangs out at the stairs, acting just as curious about people as we are about her. Watching her bob and glide in the water made me giddy, and the goose bumps only multiplied on a St. Johns River Cruise, where I spotted manatees at every turn. It wasn't long before I could easily scan for footprints on the water's surface, those dark, quivering shadows that give away a manatee's location.


ITCHING FOR THE ICHETUCKNEE

Keeping cool in Florida is an oxymoron - except if you are tubing down the Ichetucknee River. Almost as fun to say as it is to tube, this river is a National Natural Landmark, so declared because of its crystalline, pristine head spring in the Ichetucknee Springs State Park near Fort White. Though tubing is offered year 'round, the best time to launch is from May to September, when the 95-degree heat is tempered by the cool 73-degree water.

We made a day of it by arriving mid-morning and renting a tube. Veiled by canopy oaks and serenaded by cicadas, the slow-go down the river revealed a backwoods wonder at each turn: Suwannee cooter turtles sunning on an exposed branch, a rare blue heron wading next to shore, the undulating sand patterns on the river bottom formed by the ebb and flow of the water. Surprised by the peacefulness of the river, we later learned that the park imposes a limit of tubers on the river each day, making the experience all the more enjoyable since it seemed like we had the beauty and wildlife to ourselves.


UNDERWATER ASTRONAUTS

Ginnie Springs, Telford Spring, Peacock Springs and Little Rivers Springs are but a handful of the state's springs suitable for cave diving. According to Cal Jamison, a Springs Ambassador with the Florida Springs Initiative, Florida's underground cave system is unrivaled. The Chip's Hole Cal's Cave System in Wakulla is so long that divers set the world's dive record at 10,500 feet in distance back in to the caves - and they didn't even reach the end."

Cave diving is an extreme sport requiring extensive training and discipline. Many caves are virgin territory, yet to be explored only because of technological limits. "It's as close to being as astronaut as you can come without actually being one," says Lamar Hires, founder of Dive Rite. "We, too, have to plan our missions with safety, backups and redundancy. But we do it because you can't beat the excitement of going inside a water-filled cave and seeing what only a few have seen."

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