On the last Sunday of 2013, around 4:30 am, I had received a text from a good friend while asleep. The text was the start of a conversation for selecting a pick-up time for heading out to Manatee Springs State Park @ Chiefland, Florida. By chance, I had awoke around 5:30 am responding to his text with “Ready to go in 30 minutes.” The irony, my friend and I had reversed sleeping schedules by chance. Usually, I had perked up earlier in the day; though, this morning was different. Our travel plan had evolved as early as Thursday. Since then, I had checked the weather report, water clarity, and any manatees blocking spring access; however, accommodating out of town friends and family, we had pushed back our initial target date from Saturday to Sunday. With my buddy’s arrival at 6 am, we had embarked to our water borne destination tossing my gear into his back seat.
A big concern for this fresh water adventure was air management and site selection. Neither of us had known a great deal about this locale in advance. Our tentative objective was scout the two bodies of water at the park; Manatee Springs and Catfish Hotel. Less any onsite objections, we had wanted to expend 1000 PSI (i.e. pounds per square inch) out of 3000 from our scuba tanks per body of water. Another unexpected variable was weather. During in car conversations, we had both noticed the unusually warm temperatures in Orlando, Florida. Beginning the drive, the skies were slightly overcast with little to no rain. Entering the last hour of the drive, a heavy deluge had begun falling. For the most part, passing storms in Florida had provided a shelf life of about 15 minutes. Intensifying with the sound of thunder and flashes of lighting, this front had matured beyond that characterization. For a scuba trip, we had wondered what kind of omen this might mean at Manatee Springs State Park.
After commuting just under three hours, we had pulled into the park’s main gate courtesy of my friend’s snappy driving. Flashing our Florida State Park Annual Family Pass for admission, we had cleared the gate. Though, we were immediately re-directed to diver check-in. During that process, one of the rangers had entered exclaiming, ”You are going to get your hair wet out there today.” My response was, “Somehow, I don’t think that’ll be a problem scuba diving.” Despite the dreary overcast skies, this happy banter had reinforced our cheerful road demeanor. That good karma, I had believed in manifestation of slowing the rains and an end to the thunder and lightning.
Afterwards, we had followed the road down a bit until parking. From here, we had engaged in walk-through of Catfish Hotel and Manatee Springs. Two things had immediately caught my eye. One, a sign for snakes, which in all of my Florida travels, I had seen only once before at remote beach on Honey Moon Island. The second, a layer of bright puke green algae had obscured about half of the water’s surface at Catfish Hotel. Now, I hadn’t really worried much about any snakes with the air temperatures dipping to 68 F degrees with no sun; however, the green algae had just reminded me of an out of control toilet or sewer. The notion of submerging myself into this water hole had just invoked the idea of filth. The phrase,”Ewwwh!” had epitomized my feeling exactly.
Post our walk-through, we had suited up selecting the deepest body of water, my favorite of course, Catfish Hotel. Moving down the steps for entry, much to my relief, my buddy had entered first. He had inadvertently caused a wake clearing a path in the algae. In this wake, I was now able to see clear water below. With this opening, I had mitigated my earlier disgust. Putting off use of my regulator, I had swam out to the center of the water. Agreeing once more to general subsurface plan, we had descended into Catfish Hotel. We had maneuvered into the base of the depression moving to threshold of the cavern going to Manatee Springs. Throughout our 12 minute dive, we had seen various fish including, yes, hand sized catfish. Coming about to 40 feet in depth, we had pulled parallel to the cavern opening. After pivoting off some submerged tree logs, I had come within view of a corner pocket off this cavern threshold. In this pocket, I had seen a medium school of small fish. Because of the lack of surface light penetrating the darkness, I wasn’t able to get a make on a specific type of fish. With a maddening curiosity, I had wanted to investigate them further. Though, due to my lack of cavern diving credentials, I had redirected to ascending into the middle of water column. During that moment, I had recalled recent discussions of mishaps by unqualified divers and swimmers dying this year at Wekiva Springs, Silver Glen Springs and Eagle’s Nest. Later in the day, my dive buddy had forwarded a great YouTube video summarizing the dangers of cavern diving by the untrained called, ”A deceptively easy way to die.” The point of the video was the mental seduction of what appears safe to the inexperienced precipitating in a life ending event.
After an allotment of time for a safety stop, we both had resurfaced switching out our regulators for snorkels. Out of the water, I had turned down to see my friend pulling himself up an exit ladder. A layer of green algae had covered the top of his body. Luckily, I was spared a similar fate by following in his wake to the water’s edge. Walking to Manatee Springs, he had told me of his misfortune of sucking algae into his mouth from his snorkel. He had described the sensation as extremely unpalatable. To freshen up, we had quickly immersed ourselves into the pristine clear blue waters of the Manatee Spring boil. From the spring head, we had used our snorkels to acclimate to the physical layout of submerged area. After going back up against the current, we had took a moment to rest to our heart rate before switching back to our tanks. Soon after, we had descended into the spring.
The main attraction for this 25 foot deep area, the strong underwater current. To close out the day, I had decided to place myself directly in path of this raw power. After equalizing a few times, I had grabbed firmly upon a rock at the threshold of the spring opening. The pressure forcing me back was substantial. My right hand had flexed to maintain a firm grip. After a moment, I had shifted to two hands onto a larger rock. Wanting to share in the experience, I had signaled my friend down. I had encouraged him to hold onto the adjacent rock. After settling on the bottom, we had felt the current’s force breach our masks with noticeable amount of water. Periodically, we had exercised pushing the water out with air from our noses. Despite the display of nature’s unbridled will, the current was extremely relaxing, almost enthralling.
With air starting to run low, I had perched myself atop another submerged log. After catching my friend’s attention, I had made a few hand signals mimicking sexual gestures for humor sake. In response, my friend had motioned to the surface. He wanted to share in the beauty of the light rain breaking the surface tension. The cascading effect from below had appeared almost like drops of silver. After this observation, we had concluded with another scuba safety stop. Leaving the water this time, we had packed our equipment for departure.
This day was marked by grey clouds and spattering of rain. Raining days were defined by most people as depressing in general. This one was different. Reflecting on the whole experience now, it had took the mundane into the realm of magnificent. This experience was rooted above and below the water in appreciation of physical exploration, mental renewal, and joyful friendship.”If everyday had ended that way,” I had thought,”Text me whenever! I’ll be ready to go in 30 minutes.”
Manatee Springs State Park
Address: 11650 NW 115 Street, Chiefland, Florida 32626
Phone: (352) 493-6072
Manatee Springs State Park (Florida State Parks)
A deceptively easy way to die (YouTube)
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