Monday, April 23, 2012

Manatee Spring (sans manatees)

A bit of rain passed through this weekend, but the threat of thunder storms didn't keep us out of the water on Sunday. We crammed all of our dive gear into one Prius and drove through the back country roads of Bronson, Chiefland, and tiny Suwannee towns to make our way out to Manatee Spring, one of the first springs I free-dove in when I first came to Florida in August. Despite its name, there were no manatees (nor did we expect there to be any). The long spring run is closed to divers and swimmers, but fishermen and boaters are often allowed to use these waters. The spring basin is only about 25 feet deep and there is a small cavern in which I managed to get down to about 35 feet deep. What struck me first was the amount of algae; the entire basin was coated, just like Alexander Spring. The flow coming out of the cavern is so strong that you have to pull yourself along a fallen tree to even get near the entrance and it makes it look like all of the algae is blowing in the wind. We were the only divers in the basin when we first got in and as we were getting ready to get out, a class came in and started stirring up the sand. Perfect timing :) We then spent almost an hour free diving. Next time, we will each bring 2 tanks and dive the nearby Catfish Hotel, which is a duckweed-covered sinkhole attached (by caves) to Manatee Spring. Under the thin layer of bright green weeds, it is apparently a crystal clear 80 foot hole with a cool cavern to explore.

More pictures coming soon :) Or check them all out HERE.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rock Bluff Spring and Sturgeon-ing

A beautiful breeze and clear, sunny skies made for a perfect sturgeon fishing day on Tuesday. During our weekly sampling, we use drift nets to catch about 20 sturgeon. We haul them aboard and weigh, measure, tag, and take blood (from those over 1300 mm total length) - this week we caught 18 fish, and three were 85, 100, and 115 pounders! Our overall goal is to catch 600 fish between now and the end of the summer in order to make a population estimate for the Suwannee River. Right now there are probably about 14,000 Gulf sturgeon in the river; this population has shown huge signs of recovery since becoming a listed species after being practically fished to extinction. Once the fish are hauled aboard, we also take dorsal, ventral, and gill pictures, which I have been put in charge of because I never put the camera down anyway. Here are a few shots from this past Tuesday out on the Suwannee River:

Close-up view of a sturgeon gill. When you reach your hand on the gill cover to pull it out, it snaps shut and squishes your fingers... you really have to pull to keep it open!

My boss Ken showing our volunteers the anatomy of the sturgeon mouth. It is essentially a vacuum that they can instantaneously shoot out to suck food off the bottom. They are hoover fish! 

Calm and stoic, each sturgeon sits patiently on the scale aboard the boat while we poke and prod at it. Over years of evolution, perhaps they have learned that flailing is futile. We also dump water over the fish if it is going to be out of the water for a few minutes. 

Our new volunteer Melissa is putting T-bar tags on each fin. The tool she is using is actually the same thing used to put the clear plastic T-tags on clothes... except on the sturgeon, you really have to push to get the tag to go through.

After we haul the net, we have way too many sturgeon to keep in the boat, so we tie a rope to their tails and tie them to the side of the boat. They float patiently upside down waiting their turn but are NOT dead.  But if one does decide to swim while you're holding the rope, you'd better brace yourself or you'll fall into the brown water too and perhaps go for a little ride. 

Melissa and I with the biggest fish of the day. This one weighs 115 pounds... definitely a fall-spawning female.
 At the end of the day, we were all covered in sturgeon slime, so we headed over to Rock Bluff spring. It is a second magnitude spring accessible only by water... all the land surrounding the spring is privately owned and apparently patrolled quite strictly. There wasn't really any flow coming out of the spring (a little bit of warm water, but not much), which meant that the entire basin and spring run were veryy low, only about 2-3 feet throughout. The low flow also accounted for the yellowish green color of the water. These pictures reflect the true color of the water, although it was still clean and clear, not fuzzy, when you're swimming. During high flow, Ken said the water is usually the amazing crystal clear/blue of the spring. Sadly not today. At it's deepest, the spring was probably about 20 feet, easily free-divable with my mask and snorkel, and it made for some neat pictures from the bottom :)

Looking up at our "Sturgeon Quest" net boat from about 10 feet below the surface. Since the engine is up, it's drawing only a few inches of water and it's starting to drift over the spring.

Huge cypress trees near the bank are visible from the bottom of the spring (~20 feet).

Melissa floating over the edge of the spring after a long day of fishing.

Unfortunately there is a lot of algae in the basin. I would have loved to see the spring in it's original crystal blue form.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

#9 Alexander Spring

Driving south on 13th, the scenery quickly changes from the UF campus to endless horse farms. If you take a left in Ocala about 30 miles later, you end up on 40 East in the middle of Ocala National Forest. At the far end of the forest, after driving through huge sections of untouched woods as well as a few scattered southern towns that seem misplaced in time, you find Alexander Spring. I have driven through the forest too many times without stopping at Alexander and have explored Juniper twice, so I decided to make a special trip to check my 9th 1st magnitude spring off the list.

First view when I jumped into the water.. The large pool surrounding the spring is shallow and full of this green algae and tons of sunfish (bluegill and redear).

Swimming over to the spring head.

Looking up at the buoys keeping you from swimming towards the edges... perhaps the alligators hide there...
Not the most glorious colors in the spring, but this brown algae was above where the spring water was flowing at high velocity... 

Racing my bubbles to the surface. You can see the reflection of my highlighter yellow fins in the bubbles.

Lots of kids swimming around the spring. Definitely wetsuit weather but they didn't seem to think so.

 Some sunfish shots. The first is a bluegill and the second is a redear...

Swimmers from afar.

1/2 under, 1/2 above

 Diving down to the bottom... blue skies above.

More blue skies. This is taken from about 10 feet below the surface.

Diving down again. There was so much flow coming out of the spring that you could see a boil at the surface. Right above the spring, I could angle myself perpendicular to the the surface and kick towards the bottom but stay in the same spot!

One last sunfish shot on the way out.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Witches Brew

This is a video I took on a ~45 minute Rainbow River drift dive with the divers from Ohio back in February. The little springs that bubble up throughout the river have just enough flow to make the sand look like a pot of boiling water... or witches brew! The little fish darting in and out of view are a mix of bluegill (Lepomis machrochirus mystacalis) and redbreast (Lepomis auritus) sunfish. Behind me there are 6 more divers and a dive flag that I towed so we didn't get run over by pontoon boats in the shallow parts of the river (in some places, it's only about 4 feet deep).