Monday, May 21, 2012

Madison Blue Goats

Madison Blue Spring does not have goats, but this past Saturday did involve snorkeling and goats (and other farm animals like piglets, big pigs, turkeys, and chickens). And Madison Blue is also a 1st magnitude - #11 to be checked off my list! 
We started the day in Gainesville attempting to fill tanks at Water World, but despite the 9am opening time listed on their site, they do not open until 10. We instead decided to hit the road and put Plan B into action: stop at Amigos to get a fill along the way. But an hour and 30 minutes and many stories later, we were cruising down I-10 with an empty scuba tank... oops. But David being the super cave diver he is happened to have Plan C: stop at Cave Excursions to fill the tank. So we got off I-10 and instead of heading north towards Madison Blue, we adventured south for about 20 miles to find the little cave diving store basically run out of somebody's garage but fully equipped with cave supplies and a tank filling station. One tank fill and hot pink knife purchase later, we hit the back country roads again and headed north to Madison Blue. 
It is one of the more recent additions to the Florida State Park system and seemed to be quite the popular spot during the middle of a Saturday. A few brave wetsuit-less teenagers were swimming in the spring when we arrived and a whole slew of southerners dotted the riverbank to bathe in the warmer but tannic Withlacoochee River water. Upon arriving we also discovered that they do not allow open water divers or solo diving, so I couldn't dive sans cave certification (to be started soon!) and David couldn't go by himself, so we took out the masks and fins and hit the water for a snorkel - I guess it's easier to keep warm diving up and down anyway!

The spring water wasn't perfectly clear but it did have a beautiful blue color.  The much needed rain that came last week probably made it a bit more cloudy (that combined with the high nitrate levels and overgrowth of algae in the basin).

Picture of David from the cavern entrance about 25 feet down.

The water in the spring run appeared crystal clear as it flowed out to the river. It was quite shallow, making snorkeling in the current quite difficult but lots of fun in a wetsuit when you don't have to worry about being cut up by the rocks. 
Hanging on for dear life while trying to capture the water swiftly flowing over the rocks and out to the river.
David in action on the river bank :) The reverse of this photo is HERE.
After swimming out the spring run, there is a very distinct line where the spring water meets the Withlacoochee River. The river water is tannic (dark) and it's harder to see. It is also at least 10 degrees warmer so was a nice treat until you had to swim back into the spring run. The colors in the river are generally brownish green, but this little crack on the bottom stuck out because of its brilliant green color. There was no flow coming out of the crack but I assume there was in the past when there was more groundwater.

Drifting in the warm river water - there was some nice flow!
Looking out the spring run at the Withlacoochee River.
You can see where the tannic river meets the clear
spring water.
Floating in the river... part above water and part below. Beautiful day for a swim (as always...)

After a long snorkel in the spring and river and an interesting swim back up the shallow, swiftly moving spring run, we hit the road to visit K & A on their farm up near LaCrosse. This is me feeding on of their adorable little goats. We also played with huge turkeys, ducks, piglets, and a momma pig named "Christina Hogulara". We picked some blackberries and tomatoes and ate fresh organic vegetables that they had left over from their stash they brought to sell at the farmers market that morning. A perfect, refreshing snack after a great day :)

The rest of my pictures are in my album "Gills" on Facebook

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

#10 Silver Glen Spring

The brilliant turquoise water was the first thing that struck me about Silver Glen Spring. Like Juniper and Alexander Springs, Silver Glen is nestled in the Ocala National Forest. It is northwest of the other two and feeds directly into Lake George. We arrived early, cameras, masks, and fins in hand. No SCUBA diving is allowed in the spring... even cave diving for advanced divers is prohibited. In the main spring basin, there are two small vents with decent flow and off to the side, there is another cave entrance but its smaller basin is roped off and has a sign that tells you to keep out. Apparently the cave system was last mapped by a team of experienced cave divers in 1992 but has not been entered since then.
This is the first view of the spring when we stepped in the water. We arrived early enough to beat the crowds and there were only a few other snorkelers when we first got in. The main spring basin is to the right and you can barely make out the faint outline of the little orange buoys blocking off part of the spring on the left.

The main spring basin is about 20 feet deep. To my left, you can see part of the massive school of striped bass that  hang out in the basin. Hundreds of them congregate in this one area and move in a fluid-like motion, encircling you when you make your way into the middle of their school. Some fish would break off from the school and swim down to play in the flow of the spring and others were rubbing their sides on the sand in the shallower water in a flip-flopping motion. This photo of me is by David :)

There was significantly less algae than nearby Alexander Spring, which has the highest nitrate levels of the springs. Unfortunately there is still quite a bit of algae, signifying a fair amount of human pollution and runoff. Despite its implications, the way it flows and the colors it creates are somehow still beautiful 

Another amazing photo by David. The striped bass school has completely engulfed me as I try to float motionless and calm to take some close-up pictures at the surface.

Close-up encounter with a catfish. He was so unfazed by me that he didn't move while I shot from practically every angle. I haven't seen one this close and out in the open before... usually they like to hide in the caverns or dark spots under stairs.

Didn't notice the little rainbow when I was taking the picture but it is a beautiful surprise. This is my favorite kind of shot... still working to perfect it but it's so much fun to try to get it just at the right second so that you can see the above and under water parts of the world in the same frame.

Another 1/2 and 1/2 picture showing the closed off part of the spring. Bummer.

After a long morning snorkel and a quick warm up in the sun (very quick since it was 90+ degrees and sunny by the time we got out of the water), we adventured down the Sand Boils Trail. The trail winds through the woods for about a quarter mile and ends on a boardwalk at these mini sand boils in water that is only inches deep. They remind me of witches brew just like the little sand boils in the bottom of the Rainbow River. Other than that, the only other place I have seen these so far is at Three Sisters Springs down in Crystal River. They look like little volcanos and up close, depending on the strength of the water flowing out of each one, neat rings of sand patterns can form around where the water is bubbling. Because they are actual holes in the ground and you could potentially step in one and be up to your waist instantly, you are not allowed to even wade in the water. And you will be kicked out if you go over the fence to take a closer look. Instead, we stuck the gopro camera over the edge and got some up-close footage.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Fish bowl swimming (Alexander Spring take 2)

After driving like a grandma through the intense fog draped over the entirety of 441, I finally emerged from the zero visibility and found myself in David and Dee’s driveway. We loaded SCUBA gear and got cameras ready for our trip to Alexander Spring. Alexander is the first magnitude spring I snorkeled on Easter and lies just southeast of Juniper Spring in the Ocala National Forest. It was just over an hour ride to get out to the spring. When we arrived, the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds and it was turning into a typical hot and humid north Florida day… perfect for diving in the chilly spring. David and I jumped in right away and couldn't resist taking hundreds of photos in the crystal clear (but sadly algae-dominated) water :)

We spent a long time just playing with the sunfish. I was endlessly amused. Since people feed them, they are quite friendly and kind of reminded me of my dog in that they wouldn't stop begging. They would swim up and actually nibble on your fingers and come within inches of your mask. Photo by David.

Pictures of people taking pictures of people... This is yet another awesome shot by David. I'm sitting on the wall just above one of the two spring heads in the basin.

David's awesome underwater camera. If you look closely, you can make out my reflection in his lens!

This shot always reminds me of skydiving because the clouds are so clear in the background. I guess the bubbles and fins give it away tho :)

View of the spring basin (and a little sunfish!). The cloud of shells/sand is from the  intense flow of the spring, which is just to the right of the cloud in this picture.

Taking pictures like a pro, as usual!! Can't wait for so many more dives like this.

A ray of sunshine makes its way into the tiny cavern at the bottom of the basin (25-30 feet).

At the surface looking at the wall of the basin and lots of green algae and grass. Getting ready to swim over to the shallow water where Dee was filming a little snake and lots of tiny minnows! 

A mixture of my pictures and some shots by David are HERE.

After an awesome dive, we drove back a different route through the forest and stopped at a farm stand and got some fresh tomatoes and watermelons. We also happened upon Paradise Spring, which is basically a hole in the ground in someone's back yard. We decided to pull off the main road at the falling-down mailboxes with ratty dive flag stickers and check out the spring... which turned out to be more of an adventure than we expected. The dirt road was not only long, winding, and full of massive potholes that sent our huge pickup truck flying around, but it also seemed to dead-end on train tracks with no ding dong gates. Interesting. We made a 90 degree turn across the broken pavement across the railroad tracks and came to this sign:

Can't really read it? Ya, neither could we, but it says Paradise Spring. It has been there for so long that the tree is actually growing over the sign. Not entirely sure they're too concerned with making it visible...
After a few more twists and turns and entering a fancy but falling apart gate in the middle of the woods, we drove by two trailer homes and were greeted by a family sitting in their garage. There was a TV from the 1980s (to show the dive safety video), some old dive gear, and a few horses and I most definitely felt like I was no longer in the north. But they were very friendly and offered us a map of the cavern and pointed us over to the viewing platform to take a look into the spring...

 From the viewing platform, this is all you can see. It doesn't look like much more than a little tide pool. But think again. There were multiple trucks and evidence of divers but none above water, so there are probably at least 10 people in that bit of water. The dive is considered open water (I have no idea how because this is not entirely what I would classify as "open" water...) down to about 60 feet but continues down to 100' where there is a cave that the owner seemed to know little about because he said he's too big to fit through most of it. Definitely hoping to come back and dive this one soon!!

Cutaway of the spring from their website. You can see from the drawing how tiny the pool at the top is compared to how much there is to explore underground. There is a yellow line to guide you in the first cavern and down at 99', there is a cave sign.