Sometimes secrets are just a left turn off the highway on a road trip in Florida.
Sometimes secrets are just a left turn off the highway on a road trip in Florida.
Dive #74. So what ya’ might already know about Blue Springs in Orange City? The surrounding waters are popular for swimming, free diving and floating away on inter-tubes during warmer weather. If lucky, you might even see gators basking in the sunlight and other indigenous aquatic life moving around the waterline.
Approaching the spring head, the strength of the current increases significantly. At times, one can walk or swim on the far right in the shallows avoiding possible over exertion. The fallen tree laying across mouth of the entrance is about 15 – 20 feet deep depending on rain fall. After breaching this depth, if certified for cave diving, you can choose to go down all the way to the cavern between 90 – 120 feet. We stop at a depth of 55 feet. For my outing, it is one of two diagnostic runs for checking equipment and physical recovery from a surgery in March 2018. Some may describe the dive as pedestrian but, Blue Springs provides a nice warm up if out of practice before heading to the big blue ocean or new to diving. Looking skyward in the crevasse, bubbles illuminate in the water column while exhaling into the penetrating sunlight. The imagery is eerie yet, calming.
Before the trip, the folks at Seminole Scuba dive shop did offer tips on an early arrival with a possibility of sighting a baby manatee. How early is the question? Due to the high volume of traffic, the park does get full on summer weekends. On this Sunday, we arrive at 6 AM, a full two hours before gates open at 8 AM. The rangers close the park around 9 AM due to full capacity. Being the first divers in line, the payoff is viewing three adult manatees and two calves around the boil prior to our descent. This marks the first time I see these gentle creatures while scuba diving.
Bits of advice should you make your way out to Blue Springs State Park in Orange City, call the front gate a day ahead. The spring run closes in fall and winter because manatees use Blue Springs to stay warm during colder weather. Get there at least an hour before open. If diving, bring hard copies of your certification cards. This Florida State park will not accept electronic copies. If diving or swimming isn’t in the cards, one can opt for other water borne activities like kayaking or hopping onto a riverboat ride on the St. John’s.
Dive #73. What could I tell you that you don’t already know? Florida is more than beaches, sun and humid weather. The Rainbow River basin offers a break from that cliche with some of the most crystalline and refreshing aquamarine waters in the state. The eel grass bowing to the changes in current offer a dream like quality on recollection. In the footage from March 2018, the Gar and the Blue Gill that pass in and out of focus reinforce this sentiment. Feeling the pressure from small fresh water boils on the riverbed pushing against your hand only heighten the visceral experience. As a flashback, the moments interrupt even the most mundane tasks like washing dishes unexpectedly. Some folks might even use the word surreal.
To learn more about Florida freshwater fish;
To catch river boat ride for diving;
Dive #71. What else can I tell you outside the video? Paradise Springs is one of two Florida locations where diving a cavern to 100 ft can be done without an additional Cavern Diver certification; however, you’ll need proof of your Advanced Open Water certification. The other site is Blue Grotto in Williston, Florida. Before heading out to Ocala, Florida, double-check each diver brings enough money for covering the cash only entrance fee of $30 in US currency. If claustrophobic and/or fear the dark, there are other unique spring experiences perhaps more suitable like Devil’s Den. Lastly, while this family owned operation does offer air-refills and some equipment, be sure to square up any boutique gear needs ahead of schedule. During our visit, the nearest local dive shop less than a mile away, remains closed for business all Sunday.
After parking and paying the entrance fee, divers get to watch a homemade instructional video. This underwater guide provides a play by play of the descent including fossils in the walls, the guideline, assorted man made figurines and the max depth death sign. Some aspects of the surrounding area do get left out like the fog evaporating into the morning sunlight just above the watery entrance. Right above that view, a closed circuit camera is peering over the dive platform. Which makes one wonder, ”Why so many gun shell casings are littering some of the steps to the opening below?”
With that introduction out of the way, Florida freshwater springs are well known for providing excellent visibility and year round temperatures of around 70 degrees F. They make ideal targets for testing out dive equipment, physical and mental conditioning. Submerging into the mouth of the spring, the sun illuminates the water giving way to the next chamber. Looking backward, a bluish hue emanates over the debris mound recalling a church alter or a theater stage. The second portion of the cave is vast in width and height. The space is more than adequate for three pairs of divers. Moving into the third portion of the cavern, the space narrows. Glancing back to the surface, I can always see the lit opening. Following the guideline, the experience feels effortless.
At the bottom of Paradise Springs, it’s easy for your vision to fill with saturating white from a camera lighting rig. This is exactly what occurs on our little adventure. What follows are moments of complete darkness. For myself, a surge of endorphins make my heart race. With eyes still attempting to adjust, my emotions peak into a panic attack. At the same time, my dive partner slowly moves to photographing another limestone wall facing in the opposite direction. He is unable to hear the tapping on my tank because of a hoodie covering his ears. The catch for myself is cycling off blood pressure medication, specifically Beta Blockers. Beta Blockers happen to suppress your body’s natural adrenaline response. Without them, it’s like being exposed to “raw untamed power” that fire up your fight or flight response.
Now, any calm person knows Paradise Springs is devoid of any current, sharks, gators, devils and demons. We’ll “mostly.” With both of my dive lights operational and the entrance above, the challenge is relaxing and managing air consumption until re-establishing visual communication. After about five minutes of holding the guide rope, and burning through a ton of air, fear gives way to calm and an engaged dive buddy for an air check. In the open ocean, there are many other factors beyond your control. This is why I love Florida springs for diving. It’s about as close to ideal conditions a diver gets for trial run outside of a pool.
Whether you dive or not, on Beta Blockers or know someone, I suggest reading up on the many side effects of this powerful class of prescribed medications. Here is a starter article that might peak your interest; Side Effects of Beta Blockers and Weight Gain.
Diving is a lot about metrics, air consumption, depth, ocean current, water temperature and more. The experience is colored by each diver’s focus. My experience for this set of dives could have been characterized by all the small details that can go wrong. Days later, I’m still itching from the stings of baby jellyfish across my legs and arms. Small knicks on my hands, knees and elbow are still healing from contact with fire coral and barnacles. Pondering all the possible adjustments for improving gear and physical conditioning for the next dive, I choose to recall the minutes differently.
I remember the hammerhead shark swimming by on an ascent.
I remember the turtle speeding away from the light of my flashlight during a night dive.
I remember the stingray gliding above the sand and reef.
I remember moving about the hull of a boat wreck with barracudas.
I remember big blue.
Three days out from this trip, I can still close my eyes in silence and feel the rocking of waves on a boat, back and forth repeatedly. Men aren’t meant to be under the glow of office fluroscents. Men are meant to be under the open sky.