Sunday, October 14, 2012

#12 Weeki Wachee Spring: Where the mermaids swim!

On my birthday eve (10/10/12), for the first time since our May 19 snorkel at Madison Blue Spring, I dove into a NEW first magnitude spring! The summer brought many ocean adventures in the Gulf of Mexico, Bahamas, and back home in Massachusetts, and since August I have been either diving in new non-first magnitude springs or continuing to explore and photograph repeat springs. There's always something new to see, so this could keep me busy for years, but swimming in a new spring is always exciting. Of the fifteen or so first magnitude springs  remaining on my short list, Weeki Wachee was on the "this will be hard to dive" list along with several other springs on private property / accesible only by boat. Anyway, Weeki Wachee Spring, recently designated as a state park, is about 2 hours southwest of Gainesville and while you can swim in a tiny, shallow section of the spring basin off to the side, diving in the main mermaid basin is restricted to dive shops and organizations with special permission. Thankfully, Wednesday was my lucky day as NASE had a permit to dive in the main basin to shoot more footage for their training videos. We previously shot at a pool in Ocala, but for the open water portion of the shooting, why not swim where the mermaids swim? I certainly wasn't going to question that decision :) 

1/2 and 1/2 shot of the main basin. The mermaid shows take place just below the big building visible in the back right with the sloping brown roofs and blue sides. There is an underwater stage in front of a whole line of picture windows for people sitting inside the comfort of the building's indoor auditorium to look underwater out into the spring basin and watch the mermaids swim. It was a truly magical place. And the flow coming out of the main spring vent was very strong. There is a whole cave system if you enter where the water is so swiftly bursting from the ground, but it is off limits and known to be one of the most dangerous caves.
Another view of the main basin looking in the opposite direction of the 1/2 and 1/2 picture above. The blue floats in the back right are the floats at the water line in the middle of the first picture. The water slides in the background are part of the park but were not open when we were there - during the off-season, the water park is only open on weekends.
We were greeted not only by Allen, the mermaid trainer and world-record holder for the longest continuous ocean dive, but also by a whole slew of wild peacocks! There were several roaming around the park and hanging out where you least expected. Even after a whole day of seeing them everywhere, I was still surprised every time one wandered by and checked out our dive gear...




We completed 3 dives in the brilliant crystal clear water throughout the day to get footage for the NASE training video. Every hour or two, we took a break so that the mermaids could perform their shows for park visitors. And during our last break we took a stroll over to the underwater auditorium and watched a bit of the show!


Demonstrating sharing air.
Scott and I swimming through the main basin.
Floating in the sun over the underwater stage during the last dive of the day... getting ready to do one of the last skills. These underwater shots are all frame grabs from Jim's video footage taken with his amazing Red Epic camera - all 3 of these underwater diving photos are (c) Valeo Films Inc. 2012.
According to Allen, the mermaid shows take place all year long. He requires that all mermaids are SCUBA certified and trains those that are not certified before they start doing shows at Weeki Wachee - this is important for buoyancy control and learning to breathe off of the hoses scattered throughout the basin, which he likens to breathing off a free-flowing second stage. This is not an easy feat, especially at high pressure. There are about 15 mermaids and there are usually 3 shows per day, sometimes more. Lightning is the only thing that will cancel a show, and Halloween is one of their biggest days... they even have an 11pm show! Below are views of their stage from the underwater auditorium. When we first arrived, there were sunfish and mullet swimming throughout the basin, reminding us that despite the windows and mystical mermaids, it is still a natural spring:


A beautiful show of air bubbles during the mermaid show :) 
On our way over to check out the show, we found the entrance to the main basin that the mermaids use. It is a 60 foot swim from here to the main basin and most do it without a mask - thankfully for the mermaids there are air hoses in the underwater tube just in case they don't take a big enough breath at the ladder.

Tails and sequins?! Not your typical diving locker room. 
This is the sign above the hallway going down into the underwater auditorium. Love it!! 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Slack-ing

We drove south (then east) until the Gators game was fuzzy on every station. Then we drove for a bit longer. While it's sometimes fun to take part in the crazy Gator game day festivities, there is definitely something to be said for an escape to the more remote springs on a beautiful Saturday. The trip to Alexander took about two hours - basically the first hour is south on 441 then the second hour is east on 40 through the National Forest until you reach its farthest southeast corner. This was my third or fourth trip to Alexander, but I will never get sick of it, and this time was exciting for many reasons, namely that it was Stephanie's first spring dive :)

As we pulled up for an afternoon dive/snorkel, we were welcomed by a crowded parking lot. After checking out the spring, we suited up at the car and walked down in all of our gear, which meant that we certainly did not have any trouble diving into the refreshing 72 degree water to escape the September heat. It's hard to imagine that everyone is turning on the heat and breaking out the sweaters back home in New England!

Stephanie in the main basin. Unfortunately, there were about a dozen other divers in the basin... the rest being open water students doing a great job of stirring up the bottom. The basin has always been crystal clear in the past, but the suspended algae and sand didn't seem to bother somebody used to diving in low vis lakes and salt water :)
As we dove below (in an absolute maximum of a whole 24 feet of water), Greg snorkeled above... probably a smart move to avoid all of the divers at the bottom -and it made for some cool swimming-in-the-sky pictures! 
After checking out the basin, we ended up spending over half of the dive in the shallows... definitely snorkeling territory, but still a blast. There were many friendly bluegill like this one as well as 2 turtles, bass, and quite a few little minnows.
Tight squeeze! This is Stephanie swimming for the stairs after a great dive... sunny blue skies above :) This is also just about the time when a few little kids got really excited (as we casually dove in 3 feet of water) and started marveling and exclaiming "Cool!! Divers!".
Up until this point, I guess we hadn't been slacking, as the title of this post implies. But there's still more to come. Greg just happened to have his slackline in his backpack, so we found two trees next to our picnic table and tried (quite unsuccessfully) this awesome new tightrope-like walking/balancing/falling act... needless to say, it's 100% addicting!
Greg tried it out first - and gave us some pointers on how to stand on a stretchy 3" moving line between two trees... not as easy as he makes it look...
Hands UP!
This is how all of my attempts inevitably ended... although I suppose it could have ended worse... And maybe next time, I'll consider bringing better slacklining attire.
 After becoming thoroughly addicted to slack-ing and getting many funny looks from other spring-goers, some afternoon clouds and the threat of rain scared everybody out of the park. We decided to hang around for a cool-down snorkel, which ended up being a great decision! With the whole spring to ourselves, we spent about a half hour freediving in the now clear and undisturbed water. It seemed like a new place and I was excited that Stephanie got to see it like this instead of just hear about "how beautiful and clear it usually is" secondhand from me. Near the end, the sun even peeked out from behind the clouds... perfect end to a great day :)


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Floating into Fall

Up North, as summer faded to fall, chilly nights, fresh-picked apples, and changing leaves used to remind me that September was beginning. One by one, sailboats in the harbor would begin to disappear to their winter boatyard hideouts and flip-flops were suddenly out of season. But in the South, I continue to lose track of time as the endless summer carries on. Temperatures are definitely noticeably cooler than the mid July-to-August heat wave that leaves the caves and springs the only places to take refuge from the unrelenting heat. But now it feels like a comfortably hot New England summer day, weather lending itself perfectly to paddling, swimming, and snorkeling.
Work has kept me busy out of the water - we have been pitching a few new and exciting ideas over the past couple of weeks and I recently finished the online training portion of my introductory cave diver course. Now it's a week or more of in-water training and hours and hours of bottom time... I am counting down the minutes until it starts!! So after what I now realize has been over a month without a post, there are a few weekend adventures to catch up on...

Santa Fe Kayaking

The weekend before Labor Day craziness struck the springs, Kate and I headed up to Adventure Outpost in High Springs to rent kayaks for a paddle down the Santa Fe River. Plentiful rain over the preceding weeks left the once dry and low river flowing swiftly. High water levels also meant that the crystal clear springs that dot the Santa Fe and allow for swimming breaks along the way were totally covered with the tannic coffee-colored water. We spent much of our journey down-river attempting to find these invisible springs, looking for the slightest hint of a boil and paddling up little tributaries resembling spring runs along the banks of the river.

We started up at the green pin on the top right of the map and went all the way to the red pin on the bottom left. The river was flowing so quickly that we did a 4-hour paddle in 3 hours, even though we were taking our time to explore. We passed many springs along the way - Poe Spring, Allen Spring, Lily Spring, and ended our trip at Rum Island, which was also extremely high and flooded.


Other adventures included helping a tandem kayak rescue their other capsized tandem kayak... which ended in 2 capsized tandem kayaks and 4 people up the creek without a paddle. But when all was said and done, the 2 parents, grandmother, and grandson were all drenched but back in one piece. Certainly a river adventure... can't wait to do it again when the springs are clear :)

The Great Suwannee River Cleanup

After a break for Labor Day weekend to avoid the inevitable zoo of spring-goers and river rafters, a day on the river was definitely in order. So, Greg and I loaded up the canoe and headed out to where the 47 bridge intersects the Santa Fe River to join the "Current Problems" Great Suwannee River Cleanup kickoff. At the little park/boat ramp, we were greeted by a whole bunch of enthusiastic volunteers, all prepared with almost a dozen canoes, kayaks, and motorboats, not to mention endless supplies for picking up trash. So after loading up with trash bags, buckets, and poles, and grabbing our hats and paddles, we were ready for a morning of river cleaning.

A few sprinkles while launching gave way to a beautiful sunny day. We were surprised when everyone else besides a single kayak launched and was towed upriver by the motorboats. Instead, we opted to paddle upstream along the shore - a feat much more easily accomplished this weekend in a canoe with two people than the weekend before in a single kayak after a big rain storm. We spent almost two hours paddling and scouring the banks and fallen trees for trash. There wasn't nearly as much trash as I expected. The majority of our findings included empty and full beer cans (no surprises there), fishing lines wrapped in trees, and some random pieces of metal and bottles. Other boats we passed didn't have too much trash either, but we did find one super dedicated volunteer in the tannic river in a wetsuit grabbing trash and saw one kayaker pull a massive wooden block out of the river, almost to her own demise... But over the course of two hours with many volunteers, it definitely made a difference. All together, we removed 251 pounds of trash from the river!!

Back at the boat ramp after a nice float downstream, we were happy to be greeted by the Santa Fe River Park Task Force that was hosting a big cookout. About 75 people gathered under the newly-constructed pavilion and picnic tables to eat and listen to some speeches about the recently completed park renovations and further river cleanups. There was also a scary taxidermy truck full of stuffed local animals that immediately gave me the creeps... so we wandered over to the cave diving table instead. The NACD had a table set up with two nice cave divers who I ended up chatting with for a while, adding to my already growing excitement for getting in the caves. Perfect ending to a great morning!

Silver Glen Springs



The next day's adventures took me a bit further south to the Ocala National Forest - and also a few years back in time. Ignoring the threat of storms and torrential buckets of rain pouring down for the hour and a half drive, I headed to my favorite spring to meet Stephanie for a first-time-since-high-school reunion. And the timing couldn't have been more perfect - the rain let up and a bit of sun tried to peek from behind the clouds as we suited up and headed for a chilly snorkel, camera in hand.

A 1/2 and 1/2 view of the main basin. Cloudy skies above, crystal clear water below. 
I was so excited to share Stephanie's first swim in a spring! Here, she is "free-falling" at the top of the basin. We were lucky to be the only people in the water for a while, and we spent a long time taking pictures and diving down into the basin to check out the cave entrance and be pushed to the surface by the strong flow. There was quite an impressive boil at the surface! 
Mullet that are common to most of the springs these days seemed even more abundant than usual. They are found swimming around using a flapping/flying motion and voraciously foraging on the plentiful algae. 
The whole spring around the basin is completely overgrown with algae. While overwhelming and not welcome, it does create beautiful twirls as it flows in the current coming out of the natural well. The pole here has a sign on it telling you to  keep out of the natural well... which was very difficult as you could see dozens of striped bass circling a beautiful sunlit column that heads straight to the bottom. To dive in with the Silver Glen Cave Diving Team and check it out, click here.
The rest of the basin is very shallow but teeming with life. Stephanie and I spent over an hour swimming around and checking out the sunfish, sucker fish, and striped bass and playing in the crystal clear pool until the spring water got the best of us (and I filled up the memory card in my camera...). It felt nice to actually be cold after months of sweltering summer heat, and it was a perfect excuse to catch up and take a walk through the woods down the Spring Boils trail.
Can't wait for a diving adventure in Alexander Spring with Stephanie this coming weekend... and more pictures are in my "Floating" album on Facebook :)

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Royal Dive


A bit farther west on 20 past Ichetucknee, Kate and I found royalty. And by royalty, I don't mean kings and queens, but instead, amidst the cow pastures, agricultural fields, and forests, we found Royal Springs. It is nestled along the bank of the Suwannee River, discharging a bit of clear spring water that flows out the short spring run and sharply contrasts the tannic coffee-colored water of the nearby river. And the hour and half long drive from Gainesville now reminds me of the “over the river and through the woods” Christmas song – minus the snowy part. Anyway, it was my first time back at the springs in over a month after spending a long time out at sea. And it was also my first time returning to the Suwannee since weekly Tuesday sturgeon fishing field days at USGS. This time, instead of handling 20+ sturgeon, there wasn’t the slightest trace of a sturgeon – not even a single jump or audible splash from a big jump around the river bend.
The turquoise glow of the spring amidst
the trees (and some friendly danger/death/ swim
at your own risk signs). 

Looking out the algae-filled spring run towards the Suwannee.
When we pulled into the parking lot, we were alone. It was kind of eerie seeing a park with a beautiful spring totally empty on a Sunday morning, but we just assumed everyone was still sleeping or at church. We walked down to the spring to check out the basin and find the best entrance into the water and found that the spring was low but clear, first visible as a turquoise glow in the middle of the forest. While one of the staircases was blocked off with caution tape because it no longer led anywhere near the water and the rocks beneath the platform were slowly eroding away, there was one staircase that led down to a decent area for entry.

So after moving the car closer to the functional staircase, wiggling into our wetsuits, realizing I forgot my memory card for the underwater camera, and setting up our gear while battling the mosquitoes, we crossed the mini rocky beach (that was clearly supposed to be under water) and descended. Thankfully my mind was immediately taken off the fact that I felt like I was missing a limb without camera in hand when I was greeted by a tiny bluegill sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus mystacalis) that came within inches of my mask. We were also immediately overwhelmed by the amount of brown and green algae in the basin and decided to head over to the cavern first.

After talking to Harry and reading my Diving Guide to Underwater Florida book, I quickly discovered why we were the only two divers at the spring. Harry said that sometimes open water classes used to go to Royal, but now there is so much silt even in the basin that this is practically impossible. Very few cave divers enter the dangerous cave here because it is both silty and small - less than optimal conditions for an enjoyable cave dive. The only time Harry ever dove it was once to prepare for a body recovery (just in case) and once to recover two open water divers who unfortunately wandered in the cave without the proper training. Not entirely sure why they went in there considering it scared me just swimming by the dark, silty passageway with the HUGE stop sign that basically blocks the entire cave entrance. But with just two divers in the basin, it made for a great dive - and I am endlessly entertained by the directions to the spring in the first paragraph in the above picture: "This turn is just before the white trailer house"... only in North Florida...
The entrance to the cavern is huge, truly representing what Harry later called “ledge diving”. The entrance is as wide as the entire cavern room, so there is really no danger of losing sight of the light or getting trapped. I explored every nook and cranny of the wall and hit a max depth of 53 feet, so it’s relatively shallow as well. Hiding amongst the little bedding planes and holes in the limestone, my light brought to life a largemouth bass (Mircopterus salmoides floridanus) and some tiny albino-looking fish that looked like juvenile sunfish (only about an inch long!) – I’m guessing they were flagfish (Jordanella floridae) but can’t be totally sure until I go back with my camera.

You could see the top of this beautiful tree
from the bottom of the basin (~30 feet). I wish
I could have seen what the spring looked
like a few weeks ago when the water was
about a third of the way up the tree at the
dark line!
Over in one corner of the cavern, there are multiple sand boils that again reminded me of a boiling witches cauldron. The only difference being the water is a chilling 72 degrees, far from boiling. After playing around in the sand boils, we swam around exploring the basin for about 20 minutes. We spotted what looked like a Suwannee Cooter (also called the Suwannee Chicken, Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis), which essentially looks like a painted turtle. The word ‘cooter’ actually comes from the African language Malink√© word ‘Kuta’ meaning turtle. There are literally dozens of different freshwater turtle and slider species that thrive in the Suwannee, so I may be mistaken, but anyway, this turtle was hanging out at the surface then dove down and disappeared into the algae around the walls of the basin. We were also entertained by a school of almost a dozen spotted suckers (Minytrema melanops) and tiny flounder-looking fish that are actually part of the sole family called hogchokers (Trinectes maculates). These hogchokers blended almost perfectly with the algae when they barely coated themselves with a thin layer of the overly abundant silt on the bottom of the basin. As I was sneaking up on the T. maculates and touching their tails before they bolted away, I also tried sticking my arm in the silt… I stopped when it hit my elbow and declared the unscientific measurement of “a lot” of silt, most likely due to the recent flooding. But as long as you were careful not to kick up the bottom and stayed out of the cave, it was beautiful – definitely coming back to take pictures J

Unfortunately this was as close to "underwater"
photos as I got without a memory card...
this is me standing in the middle of the spring
run attempting to take a picture of the little
friendly sunfish at the edge of the basin.
Pink shirt at the bottom of the stairs and pink
towel at the top... I wonder who those belong
to? And these are the stairs that definitely are
supposed to go into the water...

Panoramic view of the spring from the stairs where we entered the water. The spring run leading to the Suwannee starts on the left and the main basin is the dark turquoise section to the right - the cavern entrance is on the far right about 10-15 feet below the surface.
 After the dive, we floated in the spring for a while then went down to check out the Suwannee. The sign that I am standing with on the left is at the top of the boat ramp welcoming boaters to the ramp and the picture on the right is the view from the side of the boat ramp. The water really does look like coffee but it's not dirty, just tannic!


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bahama-Mama

Want to see some Caranx latus and Carcharhinus perezii?! Check out my Bahamas video!


Translation: If you want to see some Horse-Eye Jacks and Caribbean reef sharks (and countless other aquatic Caribbean species), watch my video from Gates Fest in the Exuma Islands, Bahamas.

Of course I couldn't resist recording which fish species are represented in the video. Just in case you're curious, here's a list: Bermuda chub (Kyphosus sectatrix), Yellowtail snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus), Caribbean reef shark (Carcharhinus perezii) / Blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus), Horse eye jack (Caranx latus), Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus), Remora (Remora remora), Grey angelfish (Pomacanthus arcuatus), Tiger grouper (Mycteroperca tigris), Blue Chromis (Chromis cyanea), Greater Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda), Bar Jack (Caranx ruber), Lionfish (Pterois volitans).

Other highlights from the trip include Hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), Eagle Rays (Aetobatus narinari), Nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum), Queen triggerfish (Balistes vetula), etc, etc.. There are far too many more to name because I get excited to see any fish :) Can't wait to make it back out to the ocean.


Here is a full synopsis of the trip...

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

One year later...


After almost a year in Florida, I have quite possibly spent more time underwater than above... here is a little lens into my world that I put together before heading out to sea for the past two weeks:

ONE YEAR VIDEO

It's not high quality and doesn't include coverage from every place that I have dove or snorkeled, but it's definitely a start... in fact, I shot about half of it diving and swimming in the springs for fun on the weekends before officially starting with David and Dee at Valeo Films. I am so excited and enthusiastic about all that I have learned since shooting this and am already looking forward to improving both my shooting and editing skills. Footage was all shot with either a GoPro or my little SeaLife camera. I'm looking forward to more filming with the big fancy underwater cameras and many more explorations and adventures to come... cave and cavern training starts soon now that we're back on land for a few weeks. Check out our latest adventure in the Bahamas on my "Passion to Profession" blog :)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Later Gator!

On Saturday (July 14th), I will be leaving the home of the Gators and departing on an epic journey. I will be with the fish until August with questionable internet/phone service... the easiest way to contact me until then is to send a message via barracuda or shark. Or perhaps a message in a bottle.

Crazy map of our epic journey... See you in August!
From Gainesville, I will drive south to Ocala to meet up with David and Dee. From Ocala, we will head down to Orlando and catch a plane to Nassau, Bahamas for GatesFest 2012. We will immediately climb aboard the Carib Dancer for its inaugural voyage and and cruise around exploring the underwater world of the Exuma islands for a week. On July 21st, we will fly back to Orlando and drive up to Cedar Key where a boat will take David and I out to the Weatherbird II research vessel. We will spend 8 days doing scientific diving at the Middlegrounds with Andy for a NOAA archaeological research cruise. At the end of our time at sea, we will return to the boat's home port at USF in St. Petersburg, pick up my car in Ocala, and head back to Gainesville where I will attempt to remember how to walk on solid ground and breathe without a regulator.

If we have internet at any point, I will share a few photos or maybe a blog post, and once we get out into the Gulf on the 21st, I will be writing a part of the official NOAA blog... will post the link for that asap!

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Mermaid's Tale

How to become a mermaid (in 10 easy steps!): 

1. Assess the tail:


2. Condition legs:

Note: although it helps to be in good shape, conditioning here refers to actual conditioner that goes in your hair... it's needed to allow the tail to slide on more easily.

3. Shimmy your way into the tail:


4. Struggle / do abs for a few minutes (while getting laughed at of course):

Note: do not get discouraged during this step... being a mermaid is not natural for humans and takes a lot of practice (which I do not yet have). Perhaps I should have asked the 3 professional mermaids for more tips...

5. Figure out how to get in the water with feet strapped together.


6. JUMP!



7. Dive




8. Don't lose your tail!


9. Find mermaid (or merman) friends 




10. Take the camera for a swim


You are now a mermaid!!




I suppose the first step should be something more along the lines of "show up for work." It's week 3 on the job and David and I were getting some underwater shots for The Daily, a news app for ipads and (very recently) iphones. We were filming in a part of Rainbow Springs State Park where people are not allowed to swim - this was supposed to keep clueless or curious people from swimming through our shots. The mermaids and mermen spent the morning doing topside interviews and spent the afternoon in the water with us. David had the big camera and was free-diving while I dove with nitrox nearby and took some video with the GoPro. It was not only my favorite Monday of all time but also one of my favorite days EVER. It was beautiful how the mermaids swam effortlessly through the water and turned the already magical spring into a fairytale. It was more amazing than I ever imagined in my craziest dreams. When we were done with the shot list, the producer from The Daily was trying on a fin and I couldn't resist... ultimate dream come true :)

All of these pictures are frame grabs from the GoPro camera which The Daily may end up using in their little news video focused on Eric (the awesome guy who designs the fins) and his professional mermaids. He actually designed and crafted a tail for Lady Gaga!! https://themertailor.com/boutique/index.php?route=information/information&information_id=10. I'll post the link to the video when they finish in a week or two.

Despite the fact that it doesn't relate to mermaids, this video sums up my new philosophy on life. And it directly applies to today... the happiest Monday ever!!  http://vimeo.com/43691296