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.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Water on Mars

I'm not quite sure what the consensus is about water on Mars, but I do believe that if there were pools of water there, we now know exactly what they would look like. I can't pretend to be an astronaut or an astronomer, but flooded Troy Spring felt like swimming on Mars.

Same place, (very) different view.
February 10, 2013
October 6, 2013

This past Sunday was Val's birthday and a celebration was in order, so we piled in the car and headed up past Fort White to Branford where we found Troy Spring, a ~70' deep spring feeding into the Suwannee River. Thankfully the government shutdown didn't affect our plans to swim on another planet (Troy is a State Park, not a National Park). It had reopened the day before after being closed for a few weeks due to flood conditions - and what was left after the flood was certainly a drastic change from the last time I dove there in mid-February.

We jumped in with GoPros and cameras to join some beginner open water scuba divers and an intense camo-suited free-diving class. In any other situation, I would laugh at the camo wetsuits and make some absurd southern comment (they could at least wear those blue camo-printed suits people wear in the ocean!), but the greenish-brown color of the water was actually perfect for their color scheme if they were planning on blending in with their environment. Equipped with hoods, weight belts, and long fins, they elegantly dipped head-first from the surface and slipped into the darkness only a few feet below, emerging long minutes later from the brown abyss.

Camo-suited free-divers.
What I previously remember as a clear, light-greenish-tinged bowl of water with a fierce flow and a bunch of Vaucheria algae, had become a still, brownish alien planet. There was no algae to be found, only silt that covered everything like a thin layer of snow. Leaves lay motionless on the bottom, sadly and hopelessly waiting for a fall breeze to blow them away.
A wind-less fall day.
We swam around in the main basin for a while, taking pictures while making the best of the low visibility and little pieces of floating sand and matter in the water that made for a snow-like appearance in our photos. We also watched the free-divers disappear and slowly re-appear one by one. On our way out to explore the spring run, I stopped at my favorite swim-through. Usually, you have to take a big breath and brace yourself for a fast, cork-popping-out-of-the-bottle push through the little cavern. But this time, instead of the water spitting you out the other side, it was a still, leisurely, flow-less swim through what felt like a completely different place.
A calm and serene scene as seen from the cavern.
The ancient, haunting-looking ship wreck and plentiful mullet near the river were an endless source of entertainment. The hot water from the river was a continuous temptation, as little plumes spiraled into the chilly spring water and attempted to coerce us into the tannic zero visibility river. We floated and watched as the mullet disappeared and looked (as usual) as happy as little kids in a candy shop.
Shipwreck (where I first met Harry while snorkeling with Kate!)
Mullet disappearing into the warm river.
Were you playing and eating in the sand?
If you had asked me in February, I would have told you that Troy was about to dry up. At the end of the rainy season, the staff gauge was unusable because the water was so low and boatloads of algae were symptoms of the sick spring. But this past weekend, the opposite was true: water was midway up the stairs and cypress knees and trees were completely submerged. The staff gauge was not readable because the water was too high. All of the algae (and any submerged plants for that matter) were shaded by the silt and dark water, inhibiting growth of anything and making the spring devoid of much wildlife. This is just another reason that visiting the same springs over and over never gets old - but also a wary warning that perhaps neither of these ecosystem states are healthy.
February 10, 2013                      October 6, 2013

More photos are HERE.