Sunday, February 10, 2013

Disney words of wisdom

What I love most about rivers is:
You can't step in the same river twice
The water's always changing, always flowing

With my ever-strong love for Disney, these words from Pocahontas’ “Just Around the Riverbend” come too easily to mind when I think of Florida’s rivers and springs. Unfortunately, we may not have the chance to see what is "just around the riverbend" (or, in this case, what our struggling springs will look like years down the road) if we don’t clean up our act –if we do not deviate from our current wasteful and consumptive ways, the waters may not be “always flowing.” Apparently Pocahontas didn’t see this one coming.
But what I want to focus on in this post is the idea that just like you can’t step in the same river twice, you can’t jump in the same spring twice, because the water is (hopefully) always flowing there too. I will refrain from concentrating too heavily on some pressing springs health topics and environmental issues that clearly need attention – namely that the springs change each time we jump in them because there are higher concentrations of nitrates and overwhelming amounts of algae and lower flow rates and water levels.
Since the trend has been downward for springs and water quality in Florida, it is interesting to note visible changes in the springs and also to make observations that give me a bit of optimism that there are still ways to save our springs and reverse this negative trend. Since May 2012, I have been to Silver Glen six times and have noted both interesting seasonal changes in regards to species diversity and behavior as well as other changes that do not speak well for the health of these magnificent ecosystems. But this is not a eulogy for our springs – yes they are dying, but they are not yet dead, and we can bring them back. And to show that you really cannot jump in the same spring twice, here are some chronicles of my Silver Glen Springs visits, all exciting and unique in their own ways:

Just another day at the office - 9/20/12, 9/24/12

The weightless feeling of zero gravity.
I am slowly sinking into the well.
For a moment, I can feel the fish as they swirl and engulf me as I descend.
Usually off-limits, I have imagined this many times,
and even now it seems like it was all a dream.

During these two days at Silver Glen, I explored “beyond the rope” with the Silver Glen Springs Cave diving team. The team is made up of veteran cave divers, photographers, videographers, cave explorers (and all-around-amazing people) and their mission is to explore the cave and spring for the U.S. Forest Service while raising awareness about our water resources and educating people about our springs. And they are documenting it all (including Aussum Pit – my dream dive destination) in HD.
The little description above is how I felt as I passed under the rope and descended into the natural well that I had longingly looked at so many times before. Eric followed closely behind as I floated through the sun-laden waters through about 450 swirling striped bass. Despite being in absolute heaven, I was still on auto-pilot, snapping pictures left and right to use later to do an accurate fish count and detail the interesting underwater trilobitic (cave-dwelling) creatures that few people have the chance to see. In the cave, we saw American eels and freshwater shrimp beneath the rocks and in dark crevices. In the natural well, there were about 450 fish, including striped bass (Morone saxatilis), striped bass hybrid (Morone saxatilis Morone chrysops), and blue tilapia (Oreochromis aureus).

The natural well is on the other side of this rope. The sign says "Restricted Area, Closed to the Public."
On the second day the next week, equipped with a mask and snorkel, I patrolled the area around the rope and explored the main basin, noting every fish and crustacean species I saw - mostly by documenting them with photos. Some fish were very small and cryptic, and as I floated motionless in the algae on the outskirts of the basin, I saw tiny minnows that were previously disguised. The water was warm on the edges, so I enjoyed some time floating in the shallows until swimming around again to keep warm - should've worn my 5mm! In the main basin, there were four species of sunfish as well as numerous mullet and spotted bass. Hopefully this list of species is helpful to the Forest Service, or simply interesting for people to see how diverse springs are - I counted 24 fish/crustacean species and I'm sure I missed some!
Shortly after these two visits to Silver Glen Springs and another to Ginnie for work, I decided to start a separate website for photography (J. Adler Photography). Photos from these two “work” trips to Silver Glen are on this site too J

Sharing Silver Glen with my Dad – 10/21/12
My dad flying like an astronaut in the main basin. More photos.

Getting a later start than expected the day after a long Gator game day of festivities, we still made it to Silver Glen before the Sunday afternoon crowds. After Memorial Day the hustle and bustle of spring-goers really dies down anyway, so we didn’t have much crowd-battling to do to make our way out through the Ocala National Forest to Silver Glen.
Last time the whole family visited, we went to nearby Juniper Spring, but there were so many people in the small basin at once that they did not get the full gin-clear, beautiful experience. Although it was certainly a crash-course in country southern living and style. This time, I was determined to show my dad what a spring should look like (prefacing it of course with the fact that it should not in fact look like it did, choked with swirling, brown algae – but the water was a pretty crystal blue color).
Photojournalist from the Tampa Bay Times.
We spent a long time swimming around in the main basin, free diving to the bottom where the water gushes out of the spring and playing with the seemingly endless schools of mullet, who were as happy as kids in a candy shop feasting on the algae. As usual, I became totally engulfed in taking pictures – and to my surprise, I looked up and saw the big dome of another underwater camera. Apparently somebody else had the same idea of a fun way to spend a Sunday… but he was clearly taking pictures of me and I thought that was kind of weird…
Those fins look familiar... check out the whole video here.

Until of course I stuck my head out from under the water and said hello as we were walking out of the spring. Pulling my hood back from my ears, I heard him say that he was a photojournalist from the Tampa Bay Times and introduce himself as Chris Zuppa. He said they were working on an article about the springs that would be in the paper at the end of November and wondered if I minded answering some questions. He asked me where I’d swam, what my job was, what I thought about the state of the springs, etc. and got my email address and contact info for further questions. This run-in not only made me want to be a photojournalist but also made me happy that the springs were going to get media coverage – the article “Florida’s Vanishing Springs” by Craig Pittman was in the Tampa Bay and the fins on the cover of the video looked pretty familiar (see link in the caption below to watch the video).
Craig Pittman also created a website called Florida's Vanishing Springs where he posted articles about a few springs. There is one called "Scientists puzzled by Silver Glen’s mystery algae"and one about Ginnie, among others. The main newspaper article rain in the Tampa Bay Times on November 25, 2013. 

Monica and Sarah – 1/12/13

Monica and Sarah playing in the sky. More photos from the day are here.
In a whirlwind tour of the south, including alligators galore on the La Chua Trail, tubing adventures down the Ichetucknee, and diving at Ginnie, it seemed impossible not to show my sister and cousin my favorite spot in Florida. So, I piled them plus Greg (and the slackline, masks, fins, snorkels, etc) into the Prius and started the backwoods drive. The trip almost went badly when I turned one street too early onto “Slaughter Road”… we didn’t stay on that road long enough to see what it led to. The vegan in me immediately turned the car around and headed for “Silver Lake Road.” Much better. But Silver Lake Road took us to 19 South and eventually Silver Glen. And although it was the sixth time I’d swam in the spring, it felt completely different.
As I swam towards the natural well, I got a sinking feeling in my heart. I noticed right away that the algae was much worse than it was the last few times I swam here at the end of 2012. After going through my pictures, I found identical shots only 4 months apart. I'm not entirely sure if algae fluctuates seasonally and/or with sunlight, recreational use, and other factors, but I'm sure some of this has to do with nitrates, which are known to increase algal growth. I just hope that it doesn't continue to change this fast.
I posted this photo to Facebook with the same description as above. To see the comments, click here.

Another "then" and "now" picture from Silver Glen Springs. There are about 4 months between the top and bottom photos, taken in the same area of the spring basin... Looks like something (mullet? manatees? other grazers?) had a field day with the grass... and so did the algae. Comments are here.
The unclear and algae-laden waters actually make it more crystal clear that we must do something to save our springs. What’s waiting “just around the riverbend” is not beautiful or healthy, unless we are all willing to change how we use and view water and how we treat the land in our watersheds. There is still so much to see and love in our springs – each visit to Silver Glen yielded new species and different landscapes, but it is hearbreaking to see negative changes so quickly. I have been lucky to be a part of the Springs Eternal project and would love to share it with everybody, as it touches on all of these issues. It is a three-part project (art exhibition, Urban Aquifer buses, and website) that educates people about our springs and freshwater resources and makes them aware of current and future problems that we will endure. You can find the complete project description here and can also find us on Facebook here. The exhibition, featuring the amazing photography of John Moran, starts on March 23, 2013 at the Florida Museum of Natural History and the magnificent buses, designed by Lesley Gamble, will be driving around Gainesville soon.

Nesting blue tilapia (Oreochromis aureus) were a new sight in mid-January.