Descent into the underwater caves of Florida

Long before theme parks began to emerge from the swamps of Orlando, Florida’s freshwater springs were among the area’s main attractions.

Native Americans used the springs for thousands of years before Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1500s. The conquistadors’ reports of clear water gushing from cave holes in the forest floor nurtured myths about the existence of the Fountain of Youth.

A few hundred years later, when sulfur springs were thought to have therapeutic properties, White Sulfur Springs, on the banks of the Suwannee River, became one of Florida’s first commercial tourist attractions. In the early 1900s, the debut of glass-bottomed boats gave tourists a fisheye view of Florida’s springs, and pristine underwater landscapes attracted early directors. Dozens of movies and TV shows, including “Sea Hunt” and “The Creature of the Black Lagoon,” were shot just below the water in Silver Springs, a Marion County source group.

Florida has the densest collection of freshwater springs on the planet. Every day, more than 1,000 freshwater springs in the state collectively release billions of gallons of groundwater to the surface. The springs provide a critical habitat for aquatic animals, including the iconic Florida Manat, and anchor Florida’s inland water-based leisure industry. Visitors from all over the world come to Florida’s springs to fish, kayak, swim and dive through the lovely underwater caves that connect the springs to the aquifer and water pipelines to the surface. Springs tourism is injecting money into rural economies across the state.

And yet, despite their major role in the state’s tourism industry, Florida’s springs are at the center of a delayed environmental tragedy.

Over the past few decades, a combination of development, population growth, climate change, over-pumping of the aquifer, and pollution from agriculture and wastewater has wreaked havoc on Florida’s springs. Many springs show significantly reduced water flow. Others have stopped flowing completely.

Kissengen Spring was one of the first registered victims. At one time, more than 20 million gallons of water a day flowed from the Kisengen Spring into the River of Peace. The spring had diving platforms and baths and was used as a resort by the military during World War II.

Between the 1930s and 1950s, the water flow from the spring gradually decreased to a trickle. In the early 1960s, the spring stopped flowing completely. A report by the United States Geological Survey reveals that groundwater pumping between the 1950s and 1975 lowered groundwater levels by a staggering 60 feet. After the height of the water in the aquifer feeding the spring fell below the level of the spring hole, the water stopped flowing.

Constantly declining water levels also suffocated the water supply of White Sulfur Springs, one of Florida’s first tourist attractions, which first stopped running in 1977.

At the same time, aquifers were depleted, and septic tank pollution, sewage, farm manure, and limited animal feeding operations flooded the springs with excess nutrients, fueling algal blooms in springs across the state. The white sandy bottom and fluttering thickets of eel grass, shown in films from the 1940s and 1950s, have been replaced by thick mats of green hairy algae that cover all underwater surfaces. Without eel grass, the basis of healthy springs, the ecosystems around the springs are collapsing.

So many algae have accumulated in Silver Springs that volunteer divers remove them by hand. Each month, members of Silver Springs’ professional diving team descend to clear the seaweed from the bottom of the glass-bottomed boats so visitors can see the old underwater movie sets, which divers also need to clean up.

The state of Florida has officially acknowledged that most of Florida’s springs were in trouble more than two decades ago when Jeb Bush, then governor, signed legislation in 2001 to create the Florida Springs Initiative. The program provided the first of several follow-up funds for research, monitoring, education and assistance to landowners to reduce the flow of sewage and fertilizers at springs and to deal with declining spring flows.

The data collected as a result of the initiative allowed scientists to trace the relentless decline of springs in Florida with painful details. Importantly, these data show that efforts to protect springs have so far been ineffective, as nutrient pollution continues to increase.

While many springs are in decline, ongoing restoration work on the Crystal Spring River, on the shores of the Gulf of Florida, shows that some damage could be reversed. The Crystal River is the second largest source group in the state of Florida. Decades ago, the clear visibility of the Crystal River made it a famous destination for fishing and diving. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, development, dredging of boat-based community canals and pollution caused a cascade of events that led to the collapse of the riverbed and were replaced by algae blankets in the following years. decades. Crystal River’s notorious visibility deteriorated, rarely reaching more than 10 feet.

For the past six years, Save Crystal River and sea & Shoreline have used a combination of state and federal funding to remove more than a quarter of a billion pounds of algae and nutrient-rich mud from the bottom of Crystal River and plant more than 350 000 eel plants.

As the replanted eelgrass beds have expanded, they have improved visibility and now even maintain a year-round population of Florida’s most famous vegetarians: manatees.

The successful eelgrass replanting project has not solved all of Crystal River’s problems. Rising sea levels and pumping groundwater continue to reduce the flow of water to the springs of the Crystal River, and the water that comes out continues to become slightly saltier. Although there is still work to be done, the ever-improving transparency of water transparency and the growing manatee population are supporting the thriving ecotourism industry and showing what can be achieved when governments and local communities work together and draw on scientific data to save their lives. sources.

Jason Gully is an associate professor of geology at the University of South Florida, a diving instructor and photographer for the environment, science and expeditions based in Tampa, Florida. You can follow his work on Instagram.

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