Sunday, November 2, 2014


Halloween is a time for ghosts, ghouls, scares, and screams, and although I'm easily frightened by guts and gore, the chills I had running down my spine the morning after Halloween were not from fright.

Hours after dozens of trick-or-treaters braved the chilly nighttime temperatures in their little costumes, the windows rattled and the wind whipped through the trees. Maybe the night was haunted, but a better guess is that chillier temperatures and a cold front are finally hitting north Florida. This is the time of year when us 'winter warriors' rise early from under the cozy covers and speed to the springs, only to find we have the entire parking lot to ourselves. When it's 47 and windy, apparently there is no competition for parking spots or a refreshing spring swim...

But winter is the perfect time to take a dip in the steaming water. Yesterday the water temperature was almost 30 degrees warmer than the air, so it's surprising more people don't flock to the springs during the cooler months. We've been waiting all year for this... springs season is just getting started.
Bundled in jackets and sweatpants, we explored a bit above water first, fooling ourselves into thinking it would somehow warm up a few degrees before we submerged. We checked out Catfish Hotel and watched the duckweed slowly swirl at the surface of the sinkhole, creating mesmerizing patterns that we examined like cloud formations in the sky.

Thinking warm thoughts, we finally made the switch, trading cozy clothes for suits (wetsuits or swim suits, depending on who you're talking to in our group...). Touching our toes to the water, it was surprisingly warm compared to the air, but our already-goosbumped skin was not very happy about being wet. But the water was calling, so we took the plunge.

Algae and a lone sunfish shine in the morning sunlight.
The visibility in the spring has significantly decreased since I was here with Harry and a group of open water students 3 months ago. At that time, the spring had just re-emerged from a flood - tannic river water had covered the spring vent and entire basin and cut off sunlight for photosynthesis for long enough to kill off most of the benthic algae. The karst formations were, for a short while, free from flowing green and brown algae. But yesterday the carpet was back and as thick as ever, swirling in the strong flow of the vent below.

As I glided out the spring run, I drifted with long ribbons of algae. The green and brown colors took over, and to add to the eerie feeling, I swear I saw a lion - do you see the face??
Reflections form a ceiling overhead and rays of light illuminate the algae-filled basin and stairs.
It goes without saying that crystal clear water is gorgeous - and I will admit, it's still my favorite - for both aesthetic and ecosystem health-related reasons. But there is also something eerie and beautiful about water that has less-than-perfect visibility. Perhaps it was fitting for the Halloween spirit and also a little reminder that there is often beauty in the breakdown.

Sunlight beams down light spotlights as I gaze into the depths of the spring.
Bass loom in the algae-filled shadows in the shallows along the edges of the spring run.
Looking up or down?
Shivering on the inside and hands frozen to the camera, we made the last minute decision to sprint over to Catfish Hotel. By the time, we reached the sinkhole, the once-warmish water in our wetsuits had turned cold and the wind not-so-subtly reminded us of its presence... but I simply couldn't give up a chance to take photos in the magical, duckweed-covered sinkhole.

From the surface, it almost looks like a grassy field. But once you're under the green, you realize that it's so much more.
Fall in the springs.
Although it looks like a slimy algae from a distance, duckweed is actually a tiny flowering plant - it's not slimy at all! (Although it does get very easily caught in your hair, stuck on your wetsuit, etc.) It is a subfamily (Lemnoideae) of the aroid family (Araceae) - there are several different genera of duckweed found in Florida, but Lemna is one of the most common. A few different species can live together and can be difficult to tell apart - some species that look practically identical to native species are actually invasive in Florida. No matter what species is present, it creates amazing scenery from below the surface as islands of duckweed swirl and migrate at the surface.
Greg playing with his GoPro in the sunlight and duckweed-filled waters. 
Searching for the sky.
Taking the plunge.
Eyeing the exit - has the above water world disappeared?
Morning light.
So don't be afraid to venture beneath the surface - even if it appears to be covered in a thin layer of green. What lies beneath will surprise you and surpass all of your wildest dreams. As you lay cozy in bed on Saturday morning in north Florida, just remember what you now know lies nestled in the woods not far from your doorstep.


If you're interested in a winter springs adventure, Go Native Adventures is hosting "Freedive SpringFest2014" at Troy Spring on December 6 - check out their page for details... I will be the event photographer and am excited to meet many new winter springs-hopping, freediving friends - hope to see you there!

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