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!

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