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


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 :)