Thursday, December 19, 2013

Fireside reflections from the north

Wrapped in a blanket and cozy by the dancing flames of the glowing fire, a cup of peppermint tea in hand and candy canes for dessert, and our yellow lab Bessie snoring at my feet - it must be winter break! Leaving the warm days and the springs many miles to the south, I have finally arrived in Rhode Island for some much-needed relaxing after a long but successful semester. It's the perfect time to catch up on not only Christmasy things that don't feel right in 70 and 80 degree weather but also a few Florida adventures dating back to the end of October, including a visit from my Dad, cave diving at Ginnie with Bethy and Kris, and the Santa Fe River Cleanup/Swallowtail Farm Festival.

Post-birthday camping weekend at Ginnie Springs, my Dad made the trek down to Gainesville for a mini tour of the south. I was so excited to have him down, although this year I felt bad since there wansn't a home-game weekend that worked for both of us… but that just meant more time for the springs/exploring :) October 24-27 ended up being a bit of a cold spell (or at least chilly if you're planning on jumping in the water), but it certainly didn't keep us from hitting some springs, the ocean, and a few places in Gainesville, including the Springs Eternal exhibit and Butterfly Garden at the FL Museum of Natural History.
Ichetucknee Spring State Park
We started off the trip with some swimming in the sky. This is my dad "free falling" into Ichetucknee Blue Hole (aka Jug Hole). It's one of my favorites for free diving but always seems to feel chillier than many others, maybe because you're off in the woods in the shade. It's more than worth the short hike out to the spring and being cold for a while!
Dad swimming in the treetops above as I snap some pictures from below.
Dad and me at the headspring. The lighting leaves much to be desired, but this picture makes me happy! We were chilly from swimming out at Blue Hole, so we didn't jump in, but it was beautiful above water too :)
Fall at the Ichetucknee headspring. 
This little 5-legged grasshopper came to visit us during lunch. He's pretty funky looking up close!
Florida Museum of Natural History
After a long walk to Alfred Ring Park for a quick look at Glen Spring and the creek and a trip to the Micanopy Art Festival, we stopped at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the way back into town... no trip to Gainesville would be complete without checking out the Springs Eternal Exhibit! I had fun looking at the exhibit with him and talking about the springs and John and Lesley's photos, but after a while our attention was drawn to the brilliantly colored, diverse selection of butterfly specimens at the back of the museum. I had somehow never been to the Butterfly Garden in the 2+ years I've lived here, so we decided to take a walk through - and I'm so glad we did…
Walking through the doors into the giant, screened room feels like walking onto another continent. You are immediately immersed in a magical, sunny, and extremely colorful world of exotic birds and hundreds of butterflies fluttering about, stopping intermittently to feed on the flowers, hang out on the trees (or museum visitors), or have a feast on the banana and orange slices in the gardens. Knowing basically nothing about butterflies, I could've stayed there for hours learning from the helpful staff or just observing the habits of the different species and soaking in the sun - it's a place where minutes fade into hours, which quickly become afternoons, or entire days. Sadly we only had an hour, but I was able to grab a few pictures as I tip-toed around, scared of stepping on any butterflies that happened to land on the path...
Up close and personal… love the deep pink color of the flower and the butterfly's curly proboscis!
Perhaps one of the most brilliant azure blues I've ever seen.
Flower feast.
Cedar Key Kayaking 
Since this was a weekend for firsts, the day after the Butterfly Garden, we decided to take a trip to Cedar Key to kayak around the islands and spend some time in the refreshing, salty air. As suggested by Danielle, we rented some boats from Kayak Cedar Key, conveniently located right on the beach. We spent 3 hours paddling around, checking out some beaches, and walking on a little trail - Greg wore the GoPro on his head, which was taking a picture every 60 seconds. Here is a mini video of all the photos stitched together… 3 hours of kayaking in 1 minute and 30 seconds:

Pelicans and cormorants galore! These birds took over a huge, dilapidated old pier on one of the islands that used to house a pencil factory. 
After a long paddle, we sat by the beach and had a picnic lunch, watching as the once-choppy ocean became calm and serene (of course after our kayaking trip…).
After lunch, we walked around the little town of Cedar key. There were a lot of beautiful flowers blooming as well as some neat and eclectic artwork, including two mermaids, a tile undersea-themed wall, and a huge fisherman statue catching a fish with massive red lips!
Cave Diving with Bethy and Kris
During the beginning of November, Florida was buzzing with divers from all over the country (and the world), all making their way to the DEMA trade show in Orlando. While I sadly couldn't make it down to the show because of school, friends visiting Ginnie the week after totally made up for it! Bethy and Kris met Greg and I at Ginnie on Monday morning, November 11, and despite the fact that a Monday morning during the offseason would usually be calm and quiet, this day was an exception. It seemed like everyone in town for the show decided to back their cars up to Devil's Eye and Ear and jump in the water - I swear I saw more people hovering around the entrance to the Eye than I saw all morning up until that point. There was a traffic jam when we first dropped down to enter the Eye and when we did finally make it in, it was almost comical. I felt like I was at the space station - but with added flow. The water was emanating from the spring full-force in our faces, so us and about a dozen others were all clinging onto the rocks just inside the cave to let divers exit. At one point, I looked up and there were about 6 divers in all sorts of positions like spiders on the ceiling above me. Others floated below while some hovered at eye level in their astronaut-like attire and bright beams of light, piercing into the dark passageways ahead. 
Greg free dove down around us as we entered the water and swam towards the Eye. He snapped this shot of me holding my deco bottle, ready for a fun dive!
Traffic jam at the Eye! Greg took this photo looking down at Bethy, Kris, and me as we patiently waited to enter the Eye (don't look at the guy entering the cave to the right if you're claustrophobic). Once we got settled in and started our dive, we were pretty much all alone and had a great time being back in the caves :) It was extremely relaxing and such a blast to have fun, chill buddies to share the dive with - wish they were in cave country more often!!

Santa Fe River Cleanup and Swallowtail Farm Festival
The following Saturday (11/16/13), it was time to jump back in the water - but this time, into the river! It was time for the annual Santa Fe River Cleanup organized by Current Problems, starting at Pete and Georgia's house and ending with a cookout and trash compilation at Kim's house. It was another successful year and we were able to remove 1552 lbs of trash from the river (mostly beer cans/bottles along with a few tires… my most interesting finds were some old sunglasses, a deflated tube, and an algae-encrusted sun hat). It was an exhausting but rewarding 2 hour dive, full of not only trash but over a dozen Suwannee Cooters darting about the semi-tannic river. It was an amazing effort by many volunteers who manned the canoe morans, organized people on land, weighed and sorted the trash, cooked a huge lunch, and put the whole event together. See my Facebook album for more photos!

Greg and Debbie roll a big tire towards the trash collection as Tom Morris emerges from the water after a long dive.
On the way back from the cleanup, we stopped by the Swallowtail Farm Festival and enjoyed their beautiful farm, flowers, and music as well as a visit with Kelly and Ian. I was absolutely exhausted by the end of the day but everything was 100% worth it :)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Back to the caves

As the first rays of the morning sun reached the horizon and the full moon began to fade, I found myself driving northeast through farm fields and small towns that appear to be contently frozen a few decades back in time. I passed several hundred cows and crossed many county lines and the great Suwannee River, its dark tannic water slowly winding its way towards the Gulf, silently reminding me of how a wild Florida may have looked many years ago. I’m on my way to go cave diving, and for just a minute, my little world is complete.

Until, of course, NPR chimes in with its two cents and reminds me of what is going on outside my little world. Distant and diplomatic voices come through the radio to tell me about suicide bombers in Iraq and government financial issues, and the voices of concerned scientists remind me about climate change, bold and unknown geoengineering technologies, and the earth’s gloomy future. So much for a happy, uplifting drive – but I digress.

Just over an hour later, I arrived at Dive Outpost, where I was greeted by three hyper dogs and two new and very experienced diving friends before heading over to Wes Skiles Peacock State Park. Two years ago, I dove the Orange Grove cavern with Harry and Kate and more recently, Harry took me on a dive from Peacock to Olson Sink during cave class - but this time we explored a bit farther. There is about 33,000 feet of surveyed cave at Peacock and I’ve only seen 1400 – I could seriously never get bored.

Before the dive, we spent some time taking pictures and marveling at the high water levels and fall colors reminiscent of New England foliage. Dave and Steve introduced me to a handful of friendly cave divers as we set up our gear and prepared to go into the cave. Immediately as I entered the cavern and made the steep initial descent, I remembered why I love cave diving so much.

Illuminating the passageways as we swam deeper into the cave, large rooms and yellowish-brown rock formations would appear from the darkness. The water isn’t as clear as Ginnie or another high flow system and is instead flowing very slowly and is full of particulate organic matter, which basically makes it look like it’s snowing underwater. We swam through the snow, keeping off of the silty bottom and walls, and observing the scarce but amazing cave dwelling (troglobitic) life. Little catfish and bullheads swam in slithering motions along the bottom and up the walls while tiny cave amphipods hovered in the water column and cave crayfish rested on the bottom, fell from the ceiling, or froze motionless inches from my mask.

A flint of green light ahead told us that Olson Sink was drawing nearer. We put in a gap at Olson and continued on until thirds, at which point we turned around and headed safely for the exit. The initially refreshing water had quickly deemed my 7mm suit and hood too thin, so my pace heading out of the cave was more of a power kick than a leisurely float – but being caught up in and enamored by the foreign cave environment made the shivering tolerable and well worth it. It must be time to give up the ninja look and break out the pink drysuit!

I made the long drive home, excited to have met new caving friends and happily reminiscing about my watery morning and on a great cave-diving-high. So far, it has carried into this week… we’ll see how long it lasts until I need to head back underground…

A Gaggle of Gar

Post stressful 30-page-paper and an amazing birthday weekend of camping at Ginnie, we were still (somehow) having springs withdrawal, so Danielle and I headed down to the Rainbow River to explore the no-swimming-zone. The lower river is open to tubers and snorkelers via K.P. Hole Park and the new State Park tubing entrance, but there is an upper ~1/4 mile section just downstream of the headspring that is open only to canoes and kayaks. Every other Wednesday, the rangers lead a snorkel in this relatively pristine part of the river outside of the sandy, devegetated swimming zone. And wearing the mandatory fluorescent snorkel vest and obeying the rules of not diving down and staying with the group (which both proved to be exceedingly difficult) ended up being well worth the amazing, usually off-limits, views.
With no reference of scale, it's hard to tell exactly what is going on here - this is a whole slew of sand boils at the bottom of the river, about 3 feet across. It's mesmerizing to float above the boils and watch as the water bubbles up from below and creates mini volcanoes of sand.
Ghost mermaid.
First gar sighting!
A little bluegill checks out Danielle's camera...
...and then came over to check out mine as well. I'm always amazed at how close then will get when you're not paying attention. Often when I'm putting my sidemount bottles on, they will swim up within centimeters of my mask. I would say they're curious, but I think they may just be the labrador retrievers of the fishes (i.e. they're probably begging... look at that face!).
An ancient scene - fallen logs and a school of several giant, slow-moving gar.
The way they face their pointy beaks into the current and effortlessly swish their tails to barely move forward, the whole time keeping their blue eyes fixated on you, is pretty neat. It makes you feel like you're surrounded by prehistoric underwater dinosaurs.
This gar was the biggest of them all - look at that toothy grin!
It's easy to spot a bowfin (Amia calva) from far away, it's long, continuous dorsal fin waving like a flag in the breeze - although it's a rare sighting. Danielle spotted this one and he actually hung around for a while. I had never been this close to one before and was enamored by its extremely blue eyes.
Colorful vegetation at the bottom of the river - this is Sagittaria mixed with a whole ton of Red Ludwigia and some algae around the edges. 
Approaching the end of our trip as we swam back upstream.
Friendly little loggerhead musk turtle in the Illinois pond weed.
 You can find these photos (and more!) in my Fall Mermaiding Facebook album.

Birthday Extravaganza

If I could plan an ideal weekend, I wouldn’t have planned this – but only because I wouldn’t have been able to dream of anything this amazing and full of surprises. I have no idea how many hours I’ve spent at Ginnie since the time I first floated the river and snorkeled in the gin-clear water with my mom and immediately fell in love, captivated by the crystal clear water and limestone formations. Since then, it has led to open water diving, more snorkeling, field work for the Springs Institute, and most recently, cave diving. Each visit to Ginnie is unique, but I will certainly never forget this weekend of camping, night swimming, friends, watermelon, biking, treasure hunts, and campfires. In fear of getting too excited about every detail, I will let the photos and a few short captions tell the story…
I saw this campsite while taking flow measurements at Dogwood last winter and have wanted to camp there ever since - thankfully it was open when we arrived on Friday afternoon :)
We set up camp right away on Friday - the spring run was on one side and the river on the other - beautiful views from all directions!
After setting up camp, we walked over to Dogwood for a dip...
... and a swim in the sky.
Then we found a snake... he blended in pretty well with the algae-encrusted limestone and wove his way effortlessly through the cracks. After a while of swimming around in the shallows, he made his way over to the main boil and was actually playing around in the flow, swimming up and down and twirling his long, skinny body around like a ribbon spiraling in the wind.
Reflections at the water surface as seen when swimming back from the end of the run.
1/2 and 1/2 of Greg surfacing at Dogwood.
After a swim at Dogwood, we walked over to Ginnie to enjoy the calm afternoon.
And enjoyed a sunset on the  Santa Fe River  at the end of the Ginnie run - my favorite time of day at the springs. The setting sun reflecting on the tannic water, crystal spring water, and  fall leaves makes for a beautiful scene.
After our swim, we headed back to cook some dinner on the grill and start our first campfire of the weekend.
There was a live band playing at the main basin for a cave diving function, so after enjoying the sounds carrying along the river to our campfire, we walked towards the music for a night swim.
...followed of course by a surprise birthday watermelon. Fully equipped with candles and balloons :) 

The next morning was the greatest surprise of all. Apparently no birthday is complete without a treasure hunt!! (my favorite!) Greg had me searching all over the entire park for little rhyming, mysterious clues with shiny pink ribbons - one of them was even at the bottom of Dogwood in a little bottle! The most amazing birthday surprise ever - an what was at the end?! A MERMAID TAIL?!?? (Still in shock). Greg, you are beyond amazing! 

After the treasure hunt, Val and Austin joined us for a swim at the main spring. Here is a view from the cavern entrance with some people floating in the sky (above) and Val saying hi :) (below).

Val and Austin, both in streamline position with awesome flowing hair. Headed to warm up and play on the slackline.
After a fun swim and slackline with Val and Austin, we had another relaxing night at the campfire and kept ourselves fully entertained by people watching and seeing nighttime rivergoers pass by on canoes and kayaks. We couldn't resist the spring, so we took a night swim in Dogwood with the cave lights. There is something magical about jumping in when it's dark - perhaps it's the thrill of the crunching leaves and sticks under your bare feet as you cautiously walk to the steep, muddy bank of the spring run, hoping you don't step on anything on the the way. Maybe it's the warm feeling of the water as compared to the cool night air or the metallic reflection of hundreds of nocturnal fish with one sweep of the light. Suckerfish, catfish, and bullheads, often in the caves or cryptic during the day, abounded in the spring, as did big schools of minnows such as mosquitofish and redeye chubs. Despite the quiet of night, the spring was alive and thriving in the darkness. We even found the resident Dogwood snake - even more mystical and amazing at night :)
The next morning, Danielle came out to celebrate! This is Danielle mermaiding where the spring meets the river at Devil's Ear. Pure bliss. 
Another shot from the ear - swimming into the sunshine and tannic water.

 (Left) Greg diving into Devil's Eye and (Right) doing some reverse mountain climbing down the Devil's Ear wall.

A little turtle taking a breath above the Eye just before I got out and ran for the hot showers. A beautiful end to a watery weekend :)
You can find these photos (and more!) in my Birthday Extravaganza Facebook album.