In the winter, Florida has hot springs. Not the kind you find at Yellowstone or those in Iceland - in fact, they are the exact same springs that are present year round… but when it’s 35°F outside, the constant 72°F spring water that freezes your whole body in the sweltering summer heat actually feels much like a hot tub!
|Life just above the water's surface at Silver Glen.|
An early morning haze on the water and an empty spring greeted me and Danielle when we arrived at Silver Glen in mid-January. Pelicans, vultures, herons, and anhinga abounded at or above the water’s surface, but we truly weren’t prepared for what waited below the sparkling surface.
New Englanders often say that they would miss the change of seasons if they lived in Florida, and I promise, from experience, that you don’t. Seasons do in fact exist in north Florida– and they are most striking underwater. By the water’s edge, the leaves on the bald cypress trees change color and there are fragrant flowers practically year round. Underwater, algae waxes and wanes while macrophytes flower at different times throughout the year. But what is the most magnificent to observe is the organisms who use the springs as a thermal refuge in the winter, hiding from the cold river and lake temperatures just like we hide from the chilly temperatures on land by escaping to the springs.
|Seasonal fish visitors at Silver Glen create dizzying distortions underwater.|
|An anhinga takes advantage of the large winter aggregation of fish as tilapia guard their nests in the background - it's hunting time!|
We had both been to Silver Glen in the winter and observed the slender silver ladyfish and (invasive) tilapia in mass quantities, dotted with a few striped bass, (often flying) mullet, prehistoric gar, and friendly sunfish here and there. But never did we expect a single manatee, swimming elegantly in the main spring boil, parting the sea of fish to glide out the spring run towards Lake George.
|A rare sight at Silver Glen (and in general) - a single manatee gracefully parted the sea of fish as we entered the water.|
|Sighting prehistoric gar in the shallows is always exciting!|
Even being prepared for the number of fish in the spring does no good – your heart still skips several beats as your eyes go in and out of focus, trying to distinguish flowing water from fish. Their grayish blue monotones moving as large masses in the distance give the illusion that the whole spring is alive, moving melodiously yet unpredictably - you totally lose perspective immediately upon submerging yourself into this other watery world.
|Losing perspective - which way is up? Are we flying? Photo creed for this neat disorienting GoPro shot goes to Greg!|
It is this loss of perspective that can be quite refreshing and exhilarating – the landscape is endless in all directions and looking upwards from the bottom, you realize you are being pushed towards the sky against gravity. Fish that darted out of the way to give you a clear path to the distant spring boil below reform quickly overhead like a cloud on a rainy day.
|Forecast: blue skies with a chance of fish overhead. Mermaid sightings are rare but possible :)|
This loss of perspective and escape to another world is one of the many reasons I first fell in love with the springs and have been compelled to practice and become addicted to underwater photography. But it was these very photos and long hours spent in the springs, that led me to see that the springs can be captured beautifully, but there is a dark side to the apparent springs fairytale.
|There is a dark side to the springs fairytale, visible just below this endless school of ladyfish.|
In my blog posts, I usually tell the story of the photo versus the story the photo tells. The story of the photo is the adventure – how we got there, what it feels like to float weightless in space, and what we experienced throughout the day.
But the story the photo itself tells may be a totally different animal – it describes the science, what is physically going on in the picture and the spring, the health of the ecosystem. Inside the frame, the artist shows you something from his or her perspective. Nobody really wants to see a bowl of algae or greenish tinged water. I did take photos of the invasive tilapia, which may spark controversy by calling them beautiful, but all things considered, it is sometimes nice to appreciate the beauty of exotics/invasives or at least choose to see the beauty in the breakdown – I am not ashamed or alone in admitting that while flowing algae makes me feel sick to my stomach because I understand its implications, it does have its own way of looking elegant.
I do not do multiple exposures or layer images or use photoshop, but the photos I take and choose to share often portray the beauty of spring ecosystems that, despite their brilliance, are suffering. This goes to show that often, what is just outside the frame may tell an equally compelling (and in this case tragic) story. Inside and outside the frame, we see evidence that these marvelous ecosystems are declining – giving us a fair warning that our perspective regarding water (including consumption, pollution, and science) must be changed – we need what Cynthia Barnett calls a Blue Revolution** and we need it now.
|Outside the frame: dense mats of Lyngbya wollei just outside the natural well at Silver Glen.|
Algae aside, Danielle and I decided that instead of hopelessly trying to convey the fact that our photos didn't do the magic of the springs justice, the best way to share our enthusiasm was to make the trek out to the forest again the next weekend with the Longs, Greg, Val, and Jenna:
|(Top) Greg checks out the spring, (middle left) plays with the GoPro in the sky, (middle right) a school of ladyfish engulf Danielle, and (bottom) Val dives down to check out the shallow part of the basin.|