Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Jump in Johnson

Reflections in Johnson Spring immediately as we tiptoed into its quiet waters. There are 2 main spring vents just below the frame of this photo; there are also a few smaller boils throughout the spring.
If this is the start of the busy springs season, how is this peaceful serenity possible? Read on to find out...
The heat bugs are buzzing and the craziness of Memorial Day weekend has just passed – this can mean only one thing: the official start of summer and the return of the masses to the springs. The water is 72 degrees during every season, so we (just like the manatees) especially love the off-season when the steaming 72-degree water is actually a thermal refuge from the chilly mid-winter temperatures. The warmth of the springs in the winter time reminds us that north Florida does in fact have seasons – and it also serves as a stark contrast to the full-body shock of diving in to what feels like an icy cold spring on a 100+ degree summer day. 

There are two strategies for steering clear of the crazy crowds – you can’t completely avoid them, but you can either arrive just as the park opens and run directly into the water or you can find springs off the beaten path that take a little more exploring and off-roading to find. Most recently, we used the latter strategy and were rewarded with a fun little adventure.

Johnson Spring is actually only a few hundred yards away from our most-traveled-to spring. We’ve been to Blue Springs park 20+ times and have swam for hours and hours in the magical main spring basin during all times of the year – last year, we watched the sky-high hydrilla be mowed down to sand by 500 turtles, snorkeled out the entire run a dozen times counting turtles, did some mermaiding and snail-observing in Naked Springs, and jumped into the tiny 'Lil Blue spring during the rainy season.
Hundreds of turtles in the main Blue Spring basin, just a few hundred yards from Johnson Spring.
When the water is high, 'Lil Blue is crystal clear and enticing. During the dry season, the water is a few feet lower and the water is the color of strong coffee - not ideal for swimming!
Before this trip, I had only made the quick walk over to Johnson Spring once to dip my toes in its mysterious waters. At the time, it was February 2014 and the water level was too low for swimming. The run was a trickle and I played with my above-water camera among the tall cypress knees and fallen tree that formed a bridge over the spring run. Having missed out on swimming in February, I knew the flood-stage Santa Fe meant only one thing: my window of opportunity for a dip in Johnson was small and certainly at the top of my list of places to swim.

Johnson Spring in February 2014. The water now (mid-May) is over a foot higher - all of the emergent water lilies are completely underwater and the spring pool is significantly larger in area with 2 visible spring boils!

Johnson Spring in February 2014. The spring run was only a few inches deep... much too shallow for swimming -the Santa Fe River has been in flood stage since late April, so the spring has been swimmable since then.
Greg and I headed out to count the turtles at Blue Spring early one Saturday morning, walking out the ¼ mile boardwalk to the end of the spring run just like we’ve done every week for about a month. Wrapped in sweatshirts with our hoods up and clouds over head, we shivered but secretly savored the feeling of what turned out to be the last crisp and chilly spring morning. Looking for an excuse to warm up a bit more before jumping in, we made the trek along the low-lying, muddy floodplain trail over to Johnson Spring, leaving the screams of weekend campers and morning swimmers what felt like miles behind…
The view just as I entered the water.
Sunlight penetrates the otherwise shady but crystal clear water in the back corner of the basin, just above the main spring boil. Bright green water lilies and red ludwigia are reflected in the sky.
Greg and I explored the secluded spring for a while. Here, Greg is getting some GoPro footage in the main part of Johnson Spring. We swam around very carefully because the bottom was super silty and easy to disturb, especially where we entered the water. 
We carefully swam out the shallow spring run, and I had fun taking bright blue reflection photos as we gently kicked our way through the silty run.
The dark and gloomy sections of the unexplored run lay in stark contrast to the brightly illuminated vegetation, suspended motionlessly in the calm water. Even though there were two visible boils in the spring, there wasn't really any noticeable current in the spring run, and silt from the fragile bottom stayed easily suspended in solution.
Here are two more photos that visually demonstrate the incredible difference between low water in February (top photo) and high water in May (bottom photo). It was much too shallow to swim in February but absolutely breathtaking when we were able to jump in recently:

Top: Johnson Spring run in February 2014.
Bottom: Johnson Spring run in May 2014. The water lilies that were in only a few inches of water in February are now totally submerged and reflected in the sky of the crystal clear spring run. We surprised a Suwannee cooter hiding just on the other side of the fallen tree in the bottom photo.
So make sure to look just off the beaten path as the springs start to get crowded and crazy this summer - any spring is a treat, but a secret, secluded spring will leave you feeling happy and wonderful for days as you daydream about being submerged in a peaceful and calm underwater paradise - worlds away from the summer heat just above the water's surface.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Adventures in a Flooded Forest

As river levels rose, so did our excitement. The flood curtains at Ginnie Springs have been up for a while, holding back the tannic river and allowing divers access to the winding underworld via Devil’s Eye while most of the other caves in the area have been closed. But the heavy rains that have caused many springs to be tannic and off-limits to divers have also transformed the Ichetucknee River into a flooded forest that was begging to be explored.
(Top) A hydrograph showing days (x-axis) and corresponding river levels (y-axis) at the Ichetucknee Headspring (April 28-May 27, 2014). The river crested on May 3, but it was still in flood stage on May 9 when we paddled from the headspring to the southernmost takeout point. (Bottom) A real-world visual representation of the flood data presented in the hydrograph - the water was at least a foot above the top of the dock railings at the last take-out spot at the state park when we paddled on May 9!
But it wouldn’t be a full-on adventure without explorations en route. April showers are supposed to bring May flowers, and Florida is no exception to this age-old rhyme. Fields of wild flowers in full bloom are of course impossible to resist, so we pulled over to run through endless fields of blooming Coreopsis.
Somewhere along the side of the road in High Springs, FL.
Wildflower-frolicking behind us, we made a quick stop at the Ichetucknee Campground to get our boats and began our paddle on what appeared to be an entirely new river.

Trip essentials: GoPro, GoPole, mermaid friends, and Greg, who singlehandedly paddled our canoe down the entire Ichetucknee River to save my broken shoulder. He definitely deserves half of the photo credit for all of my photos... none of them would have been possible without his paddling and expert canoe skills!
Top: Testing Greg's new birthday GoPole just after launching. This is by far the widest I've ever seen the usually-skinny northern section of the river. Bottom: Danielle and Jenna enjoying the first few minutes of our peaceful paddle.
Just a few extra feet of water transformed the entire river, and the low-lying flood plane, once dominated by tall cypress knees and emergent macrophytes, became a flooded forest. The water drowned palmettos, roots, grasses, and everything else in its path, allowing us to paddle where feet once tread. But the high water was also disorienting - places once familiar to me were suddenly unrecognizable. We were able to see places through an entirely new light - due to both the beautiful sunlit reflections of the recently-sprouted green leaves and the newly-flooded places to paddle.
Recognize this place? I barely did! Usually, the water is much too low to allow canoe or kayak access to Jug Hole due to the large grate in the spring run, but the high water meant everybody could easily access the spring via canoe or kayak.
Jug Hole from an entirely new angle...
I've snorkeled here about a dozen times, each time endlessly enamored while hovering at the water's surface, but never have I stood directly over the spring vent! We were able to canoe into the spring and peer down into the green-tinged abyss.
So much action! GoPole/GoPro shot by Greg as we all explore the spring and are joined by Nate. (Look closely... I spy two happy mermaids underwater!)
Of course we couldn't resist taking a dip in the sunny spring water before continuing our journey downstream. I took the GoPole for its maiden underwater voyage. Using the stairs in the background as a benchmark, note that at least 2 steps are usually above water!

Top: Greg swimming in the sky above Jug Hole as I dive below.
Bottom: Hovering above, about to dive down (Photo by Greg).
After a quick dip, we continued our journey downstream, at times taken aback by how wide open and Suwannee River-like the river appeared to be, and at other times weaving our way through trees, over mats of floating vegetation, and through newly-created river channels.

The Ichetucknee looked more like the lower Suwannee in some places! The navigable river is usually about half this size and is lined with emergent grasses and dense beds of floating macrophytes.

A rare and special sight on the flooded Ichetucknee, just downstream of the wide open river in the previous photo. The islands of macrophytes floated downstream and clogged the river channel where you can normally paddle - but it also served as the perfect feeding grounds for manatees... what a treat!!
The huge beds of floating vegetation blocking the main channel forced us to paddle through magical forests. In the distance, amidst the vegetation, manatees surfacing for air let out loud breaths that sprayed water skyward, sending echoing noises throughout the woods. 

Just when I though I had completely lost my bearings, I caught a glimpse of some familiar treetops. Pushing our way through floating islands of dense vegetation, we found a barely-recognizable spring amidst the flood.

This tree was made popular and familiar by John Moran's "Fireflies on the Ichetucknee" photograph. This view is a little different - I'm looking at the tree head-on instead of from the side. Its branches look like arms actively reaching out to embrace rivergoers who can find their way to its hidden spring.
Submerged palmettos, sunlit patches, and twisted tree reflections in the spring.
September 14, 2013 - A view of the spring from a previous trip. I'm standing a bit higher than I stood while taking the next photo, but it still gives you a comparison in terms of how much more area is underwater in May versus September!
May 9, 2014 - 8 months later, flood stage
Shortly after our spring stop, we entered the lower part of the river where tubers usually abound. The extremely high water meant the river was closed to tubing, which also totally changed the feel of the lower section. In the heat of the summer when river levels are low and the park is crowded, you can basically hop from tube to tube - without touching the water - all the way from the northern launch to the southern launch! 
Peaceful views on the lower part of the river near where the tubers usually launch and begin their takeover.
GoPole view of the lower section of the rivers where rambunctious tubers usually block any views of the water's surface.  Instead, a quiet, flooded forest stood still as we quietly explored, suspended in water where snakes once slithered, turtles once crawled, and feet once walked.
For more photos of our adventure, check out my "Adventures in a Flooded Forest" album on Facebook - or head out to the river next time it floods to experience something unforgettable! And remember, just because the river is flooded does not mean that we have an abundance of water!! Check out Ron Cunningham's op-ed in the Gainesville Sun "If you think the springs are back to normal, you're not paying attention" (May 25, 2014).

Thursday, May 8, 2014

See the Light

Mirror-like reflections in the sky make it seem as though we do not have the spring to ourselves. Our picture-perfect twins dance in the sky as intense rays of sun stripe the water. We can literally see the light as individual sun beams paint and illuminate the flooded springs at Ichetucknee State Park. 

Sadly, the governmental decision making is not so clear. The Springs Bill passed the Senate last week but did not even get a hearing in the House (1) - at first, this bill seemed to be the light at the end of the tunnel after far too much neglect under the Scott administration. Over the course of the legislative session, it became more and more "watered down" from $365 million per year to about $30 million total (2), but we have not yet lost hope. We must keep the springs and water issues in the public eye - the health of our springs directly reflects our actions in the springshed just like the springs so perfectly portray our reflections in their watery sky. This is our drinking water and it's worth the fight.

To escape the convoluted world of politics and "Springs Failure" [the heartbreaking title of an editorial in Tuesday's Gainesville Sun (2)], it is refreshing to take a dip at Ichetucknee Springs. The hot summer air has returned, and the once steaming springs feel freezing compared to the 90 degree air temperatures. To escape the heat, we plunged headfirst into the headspring and Blue Hole. I can only dream that every Floridian may get the chance to have this same experience and not only see but feel the inherent importance and magic of the springs. This is the only way to truly "see the light" in terms of understanding why we must change our relationship with and perceptions of water in Florida. I wish that senators and government officials could see the light as clearly as it's visible here... 
Brilliant rays of sunshine illuminate a quiet corner of the Ichetucknee headspring. 
Sunlight reflects off of Val as she rests at the surface of the headspring before diving down to the vent. 
A brief walk through the woods takes you hundreds of miles away to a secluded spring paradise - and a few more steps into the water takes you thousands of miles farther into another world. Light is refracted as it bounces off the bottom of Blue Hole, giving you the impression that the spring itself is producing light. 
Light in the off-limits spring run gives true meaning to "the grass is greener on the other side." Darkness and shadows in Blue Hole make the other side of the fence look like a tempting paradise. 
Fierce streaks of sunlight pierce the flood-stage spring. The water is usually about 2-3 full stairs lower (see staircase in back left corner).
Hovering in the sky - taking in the inexplicable feeling of a hovering in what seems to be thin air. 

The story of springs has many ups and downs - from the establishment of the Florida Springs Task Force in 1999 to the weakening and disappearance of the Springs Bill in 2014. These two photos represent literal up and down shots from the same location ~20 feet down free diving in Blue Hole.

But we will just keep swimming. This summer, we are starting field work mainly in the Silver River under a joint contract between the SJRWMD and UF. This is part of the Collaborative Research Initiative on Sustainability and Protection of Springs (CRISPS) - an interdisciplinary project aimed at further investigating the science behind the decline of the springs and collecting data to better inform management decisions (i.e. studying top-down trophic interactions, food web dynamics, and improving hydrologic models, among many other research projects). More information will be available soon on the SJRWMD webpage.


(1) In the Tampa Bay Times (Monday, May 5, 2014), Craig Pittman explains why it was "doomed from the start" - Springs' aid 'doomed from the start' by House decision, advocate says

(2) "Springs Failure" Editorial by Nathan Crabbe in the Gainesville Sun on Tuesday, May 6, 2014 (Photo on the left: not a fun headline to see when I opened the Gainesville Sun on Tuesday morning)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Turtle Party 2

The muffled sound of a distant waterfall fills my ears even before I see the twinkling raindrops in the sky. Each drop gently dances on the surface of the spring water, forming unpredictable yet perfect patterns above. The sky disappears, and I find it impossible to awake from this dream-like state as I hover under a glistening blue blanket and turtles glide overhead

Once the blue grabs you, it does not let go. The cool spring water engulfs you, surrounds you, and pulls you into another world. Yesterday, the flood stage Santa Fe River pushed its tannic water through the floodplain and up the run. The once crystal clear 1/4 mile run to the river is now tinted brown, but the springs are flowing strong, pumping water so crystal clear, you would swear the turtles have invisible wings. 

The high water in the floodplain creeps above the water lilies that usually reach their long, green leaves out of the water. Once-emergent plants are completely submerged and areas where cypress knees reside and feet once trekked high and dry are covered in water deep enough to explore. 

In the still waters, the dim light is more peaceful than eerie. Dark turtle shadows relax at the surface, but as I exhale, a few move swiftly towards the shelter of a fallen tree. A once above-ground forest is peacefully drowned and transformed into an extension of spring paradise. 

We made our way around the island at Gilchrist Blue Spring, swimming near Little Blue, and coming out near the wooden fence just downstream of the Naked Spring run. The high waters reduced the flow in the usually fast-flowing spring run, making the trek up to Naked less of an upstream battle. For the second time, the turtles have completely mowed down the hydrilla, transforming the spring from a lush and swaying paradise of green invasive plants to a clear-cut and wide open underwater field. Snails dot the sand, logs, and vegetation like jimmies on an ice cream cone, and turtles graze like hungry cows in a field. They are as happy as kids in a candy store and so am I.

The dancing raindrops above lasted only long enough to say a brief hello and fill our ears with my favorite sound. Dancing in the rain has nothing on swimming in the rain, but perhaps dancing while swimming in the rain is the best. I think only the turtles and mermaids would know.

Check out my Facebook album and Instagram profile for more photos of the turtles :)

For more information about the turtle invasion at Blue Spring, check out these 2 previous posts: 

It's Raining Turtles
Turtle Soup
…and YouTube videos: Turtle Soup and Two Minutes of Turtles

You can also check out the Santa Fe Turtle Project website

Then, go see for yourself at Blue Springs Park :)