Monday, May 21, 2018

Scuba diving in Florida's springs

WILLISTON — The summer sun and high humidity made walking in a wet suit — just 100 feet from the parking lot to the spring — feel like I had run a mile in a sauna. But I knew the cool, clear water of the Blue Grotto was going to make it all worthwhile.

This private spring, located about 20 miles north of Ocala, is a popular destination for scuba divers, especially during the summer when the visibility in the Gulf of Mexico often degrades to algae blooms.

It had been several years since I had strapped on a scuba tank. But all it took was a little encouragement from my 12-year-old son to get me back in the water. He had just learned how to dive, and he was itching to explore the underwater world he had heard so much about from his old man.

I did my first check-out dive 35 years ago in the dead of winter in an abandoned rock quarry in northern New Jersey. The lad doesn't know how good he has it, I thought as I waited for my turn to enter the spring.

Of all the diving I've done over the years — off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to the deep wrecks of the Caribbean — I must admit that Florida's freshwater springs (and there are more than 600 to choose from) are still my favorite places to dive.

Like most of Florida's cavern dives, the Blue Grotto is a great place for new or inexperienced divers and, as I found out, old-timers. The 80- by- 20-foot cavern — and that term implies you can always see sunlight — drops to 100 feet. The visibility is typically 200 feet, which means a diver on the bottom of the Grotto can easily see those floating at the surface.

The Grotto, often hailed as one of the top 10 freshwater dive sites in the United States, has its share of fish and turtles, but what I love is the peacefulness. Nothing drops the blood pressure like a underwater relaxation in one of Florida's original water parks.

But the Blue Grotto isn't the only freshwater dive site in this part of Florida. The Devil's Den, another of the state's legendary spring dives, is located just across the highway. Over the years, divers have recovered assorted fossils from the ancient cave, including the bones and teeth of mastodons and saber-tooth tigers.

Both the Blue Grotto (about $37.38 per diver per day) and Devil's Den ($38 per day) are private facilities with gear rental and air stations available, but Florida also has more than a dozen state parks that have natural springs open to snorkelers and scuba divers with the proper training.

Peacock Springs State Park, about 16 miles from Live Oak, the cave diving capital of the world, has two main springs, a spring run and six sinkholes, all maintained in their natural condition. With more than 28,000 feet of underwater passes, one of the longest cave systems in the continental United States, this state park is a gathering place for underwater explorers.

One of Florida's most famous springs (thanks to a recent National Geographic expedition) is Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, southwest of Tallahassee. With swimming platforms and a dive tower, the park is a popular swimming spot. Dunnellon's Rainbow Springs State Park, about two hours north of Tampa, has 6 miles of gin-clear water just waiting for snorkelers and divers to explore.

Summer is a great time to learn how to scuba dive. My son spent the better part of two weeks at the Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park and then two weekends, learning the basics. Then he spent several afternoons studying for the written test, which he had to take three times before he passed.

There are no shortcuts to diving competence. An open-water scuba certification card (C-card) is what you need to get a tank filled with air. Most reputable charter boat operators will ask to see a C-card, and sometimes a log book, before they will take you diving.

The certification requirements vary from agency to agency, but all ask students to demonstrate various emergency procedures, such as sharing air underwater, before they will issue a C-card. Students must be at least 15 and demonstrate minimal water skills, i.e., a continuous 200-yard surface distance swim and a 10-minute survival swim/float without the use of mask, fins, snorkel or other swimming aids. A typical class involves several classroom sessions where students learn the physics of diving on compressed air, several pool sessions and a series of open-water dives.

Classes last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Students usually are required to bring their own mask, fins and snorkel. Prices vary from $100 to $300, but don't look for the cheapest deal. Instead, search for an instructor who makes you feel safe and comfortable. Think about it: Your life is in their hands.


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