Saturday, August 10, 2013

It's Raining Turtles

It’s raining cats and dogs never made a whole lot of sense to me. Never in my life have I walked outside and seen cats and dogs falling from the sky. In fact, I’ve never even seen a cat fall from a tree. But today, it was raining turtles.

You may think I’m crazy, and maybe it didn’t rain turtles at your house, but from my view (somewhere at the bottom of Blue or Naked Spring), it did.

Danielle and I pulled into Blue Spring before the campers were awake or brave enough to venture outside their cozy tents and RVs. There were a few people milling around but only one or two with an interest in swimming around the main basin. The colors above water were beautiful – crystal clear blue water that reflected the green treetops and almost cloudless sky. But we didn’t stay above for long.

Making the chilly plunge from the stairs, we were immediately immersed in a new and more-magical-than-Disney world. According to Danielle, I looked completely calm, but on the inside my heart was beating a million miles per minute. What started out as small black ovals and indentations in the distant hydrilla took shape as 100s of turtles waking up from a night’s slumber in the comfy vegetation.

I kept blinking as I swam closer, making sure I wasn’t seeing things – last time there were 20 turtles in Naked Spring, I was squealing with joy for hours afterwards, so about 400-500 had me in heaven.

The way hundreds of them moved in a small space reminded me of raindrops on the water. If you look very closely at drops of rain as they hit a spring or the ocean on a calm day, you see them strike the water and then a little column of water bounces back a few inches above the surface like a tiny fountain. From a distance, the movement of every turtle looked like raindrops on the water – one would come down from the surface just as another rose to take a breath. Multiplied times a hundred, it was a neat and inexplicable feeling.

U-frown turtle (above)
Friendly, happy turtle (below)
Some would approach you happily once they were used to you swimming around, but many were quite skittish. They often didn’t see you until you were pretty close, especially if they were breathing. Dipping their heads back into the water after a long and refreshing breath, they would make eye contact with you and dart away at 90 miles an hour. Those that were caught on the bottom hiding in the hydrilla only inches below my stomach would either stay statue-still or, if they saw you coming head-on, they would stare at you and slowly but fruitlessly try to back up. Turtles don’t go backwards very well (especially when there is a ton of hydrilla and 10 other turtles behind them).

In an attempt to not torture the turtles by scaring them all at once (and in an attempt to regain even a degree or two of body temperature, which was steadily plummeting), I ventured farther out the main spring run and up to Naked Spring. This little spring run is perhaps one of the most beautiful runs for taking pictures of the green forest-like reflections in the sky. Sometimes, when you look up from the bottom, it looks like you can’t get to the surface because the hydrilla-filled or sandy bottom is above your head.

Turtles were darting every which way in this little run too, which dead-ended at Naked Spring, where I found almost 100 more turtles resting peacefully and quietly breathing at the surface here and there. Every time I dove down into the spring, I’d have my eyes fixed on a close-by turtle and one would come within inches of my nose or brush alongside of me. They were literally everywhere.
Synchronized turtle breathing in Naked Spring.
Beautiful rays of sunlight in Naked Spring and a "maybe mermaid" shadow.
At that point, I was shaking from being so cold, hands practically frozen to the camera and covered in goosebumps. It made holding my breath especially difficult, but in an attempt to see a turtle in the sky, I dove to the bottom of Naked Spring and gazed upwards. Seconds later, a turtle soared above like an airplane through the bright blue sky.
Flying turtle.
Turtle reflections in the sky as I swam out the Naked Spring run.

After the shot of the flying turtle, I was sufficiently satisfied and absolutely freezing, so I sadly decided it was time to part with the turtles and swam back to find Danielle, who was still completely enamored with the turtles in the main basin :)
We spent a while warming up in the sun afterwards, talking in disbelief about what we had just seen. We escaped the spring as mobs of people and a huge line of cars was starting to overrun the park – and just in time for the two of us vegans to (mostly) escape the overwhelming smell of meat cooking on the grill. And unlike the unusual “rain” below the surface, the rain held off above water. But knowing Florida weather in the summer, it will rain “cats and dogs” again very soon - although I hope it rains turtles even sooner J

Click here to watch a little YouTube VIDEO I put together called "Turtle Party" and click here to see more photos on Facebook.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Sweatshirts in the Summer

Every afternoon we approached shore after a long, summer day on the ocean, we slowly shed layers of clothing as the warm shore air mixed with the chilly ocean breeze. I remember looking at the far away masses of ant-sized people from the cozy, cool cockpit, lost in layers of beach towels, oversized sweatshirts, and sweatpants that covered the bikini and shorts I had optimistically put on in the muggy morning hours. All of those tiny people in the distance were sweltering hot in their bathing suits, some brave enough to dash into the 60-something degree water for just a second to cool off before the sun found them again.

Even in northern Massachusetts, escaping to the sea was often the only way to avoid practically melting in the blazing sun, and I realized at some point mid-college that the reason I claimed to love summer and the hot weather was that I had a way to escape it when it slowly crept in shortly after the last snow piles melted. I had a secret place to go where I could bundle up, drag my feet in the waves with my sister, and come back to shore completely refreshed and looking totally crazy with windblown hair sticking up in directions I didn't even know were possible.

Moving to north central Florida was scary because I thought I would lose this escape. Being landlocked was perhaps my biggest fear. But after yet another weekend of melting temperatures spent at the springs, I have come to realize that the feeling I get after being in a spring is much the same as coming in from a long afternoon of sailing - it's refreshing both temperature-wise and for the mind. In both cases, I'm cold when everything around me is hot. And unconditionally happy.

Despite the sweltering summer temperatures, it appears to be
 fall in the main Ginnie basin :)
While they act as thermal refuges for manatees and striped bass in the winter, they are my liquid freezer in the summer. They are the reason I drive around all week with fuzzy sweatshirts and jackets when my car thermometer reads 100 degrees. As I drive around town, I can't fathom even getting near one of those jackets, let alone putting it on - until I jump in a spring. This past weekend, we swam in three springs to escape the summer heat and I was reminded that being landlocked (and wearing a sweatshirt in 100 degree weather) isn't so bad after all.

Stairway out of paradise.

Normally, Ginnie on a Saturday isn't exactly a relaxing outing. Actually, if at all possible, I go during the week to avoid the crowds and have some hope of getting some decently clear shots in the springs before everybody and their grandma comes into the springs with tubes, rafts, noodles, and air mattresses galore. But this weekend, I really really wanted to go diving with the amazing springs artist, writer, enthusiast, and co-Springs Eternal Project founder Lesley, so we decided to brave the crowds and head over early on a Saturday morning. And before 9am, before the night-before partiers have stirred or the late-sleepers have driven in from near and far, Ginnie on a Saturday is quite peaceful.
Persistent summer rain storms have caused the water level to rise a few feet. July 2013 set a new rainfall record! A photo I took in this exact location during the winter field season showed cyprus knees a few feet above the crystal clear water!

(Above Left) Children played in the sky while Lesley and I we dove in the basin below. After doing some skills just outside the cavern, we swam out the run to explore the magical area where the spring run meets the tannic river (Above Right). I could play here for hours - it's fascinating how the water swirls and mixes and forms rainbows of color.

Greg trying out his new GoPro in the Headspring.
We met Lesley and John out near the Ichetucknee on Sunday and had a fantastic tour of a house they were taking care of for some friends. Afterwards, we made our way over to the headspring for a swim. Greg tried out his new GoPro while I took some photos in the boil and around the edges where the sand they recently dumped above the spring is making its way into the boil and covering the submerged aquatic vegetation. While we had to wade through a sea of people to enter the spring, it was funny to observe their movement in the spring (or lack thereof). There were some children dashing around and maybe one or two people that would branch off and swim near the boil, but 99% of the people stood crowded around the stairs (most fully clothed) in waist-deep water. While I found this funny as I swam around with my mask and snorkel and big fins and attempted to stay above water for as little time as possible (only for a breath here and there), I truly appreciated the diversity of things the springs have to offer and how many different people can enjoy the springs, doing very different things. It also made me happy that everyone wasn't doing the same thing as me... there isn't much room in the little cavern once you free dive to the bottom ;)

Next, we walked out to Blue Hole where I was again in heaven on earth freediving down to the bottom and dolphin-kicking around the basin. We stayed in for as long as our wetsuit-less bodies could handle the cold and then made our way out the path to the warm car.
Perhaps my favorite view from the bottom of a spring - I actually didn't realize it at the time, but now I see that it is literally an eye in the sky :)
Greg frog kicks in the bright blue sky.
On our way home, we made a quick stop at the Sonny's BBQ on 441. But we didn't go inside. We more just used their parking lot as a convenient place to park for a few minutes to go look at Mill Pond Sink, hidden just out of view from the busy road.
It's amazing what you can find less than 100 yards from a place you've driven by dozens of times. Apparently the water isn't usually this high and tannic - I'm excited to come back and see how different it looks once the rainy season is over!
There are more photos in my Summer Springs Facebook album :)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Blues

What first comes to mind when I think of "the blues" is the Sunday morning blues radio show on 100.7 wzlx that my dad always used to listen to growing up near Boston. My sister and I hated it and always begged him to change the station to put on whatever crazy pop happened to be in style at the time on our favorite Kiss 108 FM station. While this will always be my first association of "the blues", living in Florida has inspired this phrase to mean something else in my mind - the springs! Their crystal blue color certainly makes me feel the opposite of how sad and "blue" the people were who I used to hear on the radio in the living room on Sunday mornings.

It's hard to believe that June, and now July, have flown by, leaving us with just over a month of official summer left (before it continues being summer in Florida...). Summer classes are wrapping up, and while being in a crazy hardcore-over-my-head stats class can sometimes make me feel like singing the blues, I instead opted for study breaks that brought me closer to the wondrous blue waters that inspire me and have become my second home...

July started with red, white, and blue celebrations on the 3rd and 4th. Val and Austin were in town the night of the 3rd, so we enjoyed some fireworks with them at Flavet Field (and some delicious Karma Kreme afterwards to celebrate their short and sweet visit to Gainesville). We began the next day with a walk/run at Millhopper, which inevitably (to go along with the theme) ended with lots of blue falling from the sky... aka it poured half way through our outdoor adventure, which wasn't ideal. Although once we were soaked, it wasn't so bad, so we embraced it and stayed for a while as the rain drove from the skies, waterfall-ed down the steep, muddy walls of the sinkhole, and percolated into the ground, destined for the aquifer beneath our feet.

 Of course the rain stopped just as we arrived home, so we dried off, had some lunch, and continued our park adventure by going over to the La Chua trail, where we caught a few glimpses of blue skies and sunshine. The alligators, butterflies, a whole assortment of fun insects (thankfully not the biting/stinging kind) and beautiful passion flowers were also enjoying a break in the rain and served as perfect subjects for taking some photos along the way.

To celebrate the 4th, we went up to Andy and Kathleen's farm for a potluck celebration that included lots of food, beautiful sunflowers, cute piglets and goats, loud fireworks, fantastic company, and so much more :)
My favorite flowers... high in the sky.
Skeptical, but adorable, little piglet. She's one of Lilliputian's babies (we picked up Lilli on our way back from diving at the Middlegrounds in the Gulf of Mexico last year and she looked just like this... can't believe she already has piglets of her own!).
Andy starting the fireworks early - awesome!

Our next adventure was blueberry picking. Usually strawberry picking is one of my favorite activities of the summer (just as apple picking is one of my favorite fall activities). I have many fond memories of picking with my grandmother at home, but in Florida, the picking seasons are shifted so that strawberries come before summer even has a chance to begin and blueberries are gone by the time the August picking season starts in New England. Danielle was able to do some research and track down what I'm pretty sure was the last farm open for the season - a beautiful, organic farm up on the Santa Fe River.

The very nice lady who ran the farm left a walkie-talkie (talk about a blast from the past... haven't used one since elementary school) so that we could call her out in the field to tell her we were ready to pick berries. There was a minor problem though - her walkie talkie didn't have batteries, so we were calling nobody! She ended up coming in from the field shortly after we arrived, which was actually okay because it gave us some time to explore the interesting little store (with signs that said things like "no horseplay on the porch" and "do not pick up the cats"...)
Slim pickings (but still some left!).
With bellies full of berries, Greg and I finished the day with a swim at Ginnie's Dogwood spring and marvelous display of fireworks in the Ginnie Springs field. There were other explosions in the sky and angry rains for a while, but it was well worth waiting out the rainy weather for the amazing show. We left late that night, but I couldn't stay away for long - the following Monday, I headed back up to Ginnie to explore the caves with Harry :)

Peaceful weekday morning - well worth getting up early!
A week later, Danielle and I headed out to Ichetucknee Blue Hole to beat the Monday morning blues. There's definitely no better way to beat the summer crowds, and it's certainly my favorite way to start the day - Mondays are for bathing suits (not other kinds of suits... and I can safely say Danielle agrees!).

Danielle taking one of many fantastic photos of the day (the one she is taking here is a neat shot of the visible boil at the surface... the flow has been very strong due to all of the summer rain!).
The summer rains brought the water level up at least a 1-3 feet. I've never seen the water this high and clear at Blue Hole. The extra water made a little spring run swimmable that never used to be deep enough to swim through, so I squeezed my way under a log and found this magnificent view before swimming upstream a hundred yards or so :)
Reflections in the side spring run.
The strong flow from Blue Hole making its way towards the Ichetucknee River. I'm holding my camera up to the fence that keeps boaters and swimmers from entering the spring from the river and keeps swimmers in Blue Hole from getting out and disrupting the sensitive vegetation.
Brilliant blue below... a freediving dream spot :)
A few days later, the springs were calling again, so Greg and I headed up to Gilchrist Blue Spring. Eager to swim up the run from the Santa Fe River, I left my camera... which obviously meant that we saw something amazing. As we swam up the little spring run towards Naked Spring and the spring came into view, we counted 20+ turtles, all sleeping and resting throughout the spring. Throughout the day, the turtle count went up to 50 throughout the whole spring... it was absolutely breathtaking.
A view of Naked Spring from above. There are easily 20+ turtles just below the surface.
Coming up from freediving in Naked Spring (NOT freediving naked in the spring... note subtle difference ;).


St. Augustine Beach.
Leaving the stunning blue bowls of water behind for a day, Greg and I headed out for a short but necessary visit to the ocean. We were lucky to find a break in the persistent summer rains to find blue skies in St. Augustine. A beautiful morning in the water gave way to a very brief midday thunder shower (thankfully while we were drinking delicious smoothies and eating at my new favorite lunch spot called Stir it Up) then the sun came back out and we swam for a while longer, played with the awesome mole crabs in the sand, and then headed off the beach to explore downtown.

My new favorite lunch spot. Basically everything on the menu has a name that's a play on words using lyrics or names from Bob Marley's songs!
Pink flowers galore. These and many others lined the little cobblestone streets of St. Augustine.
Greg and I by a pretty fountain outside the Lightner Museum.
Beautiful shell and tile artwork (above) at Flagler College, as well as a brilliant gold ceiling in one of their historic campus buildings.
We ended the very hot summer day with some delicious homemade  popsicles from The Hyppo.

Photos from all of these July adventures are in my Facebook album The Blues :)