Orange Grove Sink
One hundred feet below a forest of oak and pine at Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park in North Central Florida, scuba divers in bulky equipment explore the water-filled tunnels that honeycomb the Florida peninsula. They are an elite group, these men and women who risk life and limb. Some do it in the name of research, others for sport, swimming through bone-white corridors filled with water as clear as gin.
This is an alien world with no room for error. No one knows for sure how many miles of tunnels wind their way through the massive limestone cap that supports our highways and homes.
Cave divers compare it to Swiss cheese or a giant sponge. Some passageways are so narrow that the divers must take off their equipment to slide through. Others are so large, it is said they could hold a football stadium.
But one thing is certain – the water that flows through these veins is the lifeblood of Florida.
The technical name for this porous limestone that underlines the Florida peninsula – in some spots thousands of feet thick – is the Floridan aquifer. Tens of thousands of years ago, when the Florida landmass emerged from the sea, the lime rock "trapped" the sea water.
The exposed limestone collects freshwater, and below this freshwater lens, the rock holds saltwater. Over the years, the rains and freshwater began to form tunnels and cavities, collecting in what would become a giant reservoir. In some areas, where the crust is thin, the water bubbles to the surface.
The result is more than 600 freshwater springs. Some are small – barely noticeable, really – while others are large enough to pump out millions of gallons of water a day, enough to feed a major river.
Early humans gathered by the springs where they fed on mastodon, mammoth, ground sloth, giant armadillo and beaver. Today, divers sometimes find bones and teeth, as well as stone-age tools, from this forgotten age.
The Legacy of Ponce de Leon
It was the state’s amazing springs that brought the first explorers to Florida: Legend has it that the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon came in 1513 searching for Bimini and the Fountain of Youth.
Hundreds of years later, as colonists settled the region, they congregated around these freshwater sources. Word spread quickly about the magical, cool, clear water. It wasn’t long before entrepreneurs began to capitalize on these natural phenomena.
Towns began to pop up around the most popular watering spots, including Silver Springs near Ocala, Green Cove Spring near Jacksonville and DeLeon Spring, southeast of Daytona Beach.
Paddlewheel steamboats ferried visitors in by the thousands. Soon all the world heard of the magical healing powers of Florida’s springs. Today, the cool, calming effect of springs is undisputed as more than two million visitors a year come to enjoy nature’s swimming holes.
The “Original” Tourist Attraction
In 1860, the first steamboats chugged up the Ocklawaha River and then Silver Run, which was fed by one of Florida’s fabled natural wonders. The tourists loved to watch the fish, turtles and otters swim through the cool, clear water.
Almost two decades later, a forward-thinker named Hullman Jones got the visitors one step closer by installing a glass viewing box on the flat bottom of a dugout canoe. Now, thanks to this “glass-bottom boat,” guests felt that they could practically swim with the creatures that frolicked in waters of the river and spring.
Silver Springs soon became one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United States. In 1916, Hollywood filmed a silent movie, “The Seven Swans,” there, but it wasn’t until the 1930s and ‘40s, when Johnny Weissmuller shot the first of six “Tarzan” movies there, that the world really took notice. Other films, including the horror classic, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and the popular television series, “Sea Hunt,” followed.
Today, Silver Springs still retains much of its original charm. Visitors still line up to take the legendary glass-bottom boat tours, and kayakers and canoeists love to launch at the nearby Silver River State Park to paddle up to the head springs.
The “World’s Most Popular Freshwater Dive Destination”
Scuba divers from around the globe come to learn their craft and peek inside the aquifer at Ginnie Springs, northwest of Gainesville, the most popular freshwater diving destination in the world.
This privately-owned facility has seven crystal-clear, freshwater springs spread out across 200 wooded acres along the banks of the Santa Fe River. The clear – and, at times, deep – blue water of the springs is contrasted by the dark, tea-colored water of the nearby river. For information, go to www.ginniespringsoutdoors.com.
While some springs are privately owned, Florida has 15 state parks that preserve and protect the public access to the aquifer.
In Northwest Florida, Ponce de Leon State Park has a main spring that produces 14 million gallons of invigorating 68-degree water every day. A dip in this “fountain of youth” is guaranteed to at least make you feel a few years younger.
Near the towns of Suwannee and Fanning, Fanning Springs State Park, a hub of the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, is often visited by manatees which swim in all the way from the coast to take advantage of the year-round 72-degree water. Fanning Springs is also a favorite swimming hole for locals enchanted by the allure of the deep blue water.
Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park, located about 16 miles from Live Oak, the cave diving capital of the world, has two main springs, a spring run, and six sinkholes, all maintained in their natural condition. With more than 28,000 feet of underwater passes, one of the longest cave systems in the continental United States, this state park is a gathering place for underwater explorers.
One of Florida’s largest, deepest and most famous springs (thanks to a National Geographic expedition a few years ago) is Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, south of Tallahassee. With swimming platforms and a dive tower, the park is a popular swimming spot. Visitors can also board at the park for a boat tour of the Wakulla River.