From tiny trickles known only to deep backwoods explorers to mammoth gushers like Wakulla, Manatee and Silver Springs, Florida's 700 natural fountains rank among the world's greatest wonders.
To dive or snorkel in Florida's springs is to experience an otherworldly sensation, a weightless flight through an underwater garden shaped by water clear as a lens, gnome-like rock formations, darting fish and billowing aquatic plants. "They are magical places for the solace of the soul," said Margaret Ross Tolbert, who has dived in the springs and painted them for nearly three decades. She finds in them a rejuvenating element, perhaps akin to that legendary fountain of Ponce de Leon's. "The experience of being in the springs is a kind of ecstatic harmony," Tolbert said. "In other times in life we sometimes feel this – emotionally, spiritually – as if everything and everyone is pulsing with the same energy, flow and radiance. The springs is the experience – the model, metaphor and illustration of that ecstasy," said Tolbert.
These springs range from tiny trickles known only to deep backwoods explorers to mammoth gushers like Wakulla, Manatee and Silver Springs, known as "first magnitude" because they discharge more than 65 million of gallons of water per day.
Many offer swimming, snorkeling, diving, photography, camping, canoeing, tubing or kayaking in water with a constant average temperature of 72 degrees. Silver Springs and Wakulla Springs offer glass-bottom boat tours. Rainbow Springs near Dunnellon often is considered the most beautiful of the state's 33 first-magnitude springs, more than any other state and more than any nation can boast.
A few hours' visit to any of Florida's bubbling wonders can reveal a living composition of wildlife and plants. Frequently seen creatures include manatees, otters, the secretive, eel-like greater siren, loggerhead musk turtles, Florida gar and maybe an alligator – which should be given wide berth. Eel grass, the delicate, pale spider lily and stately bald cypress trees help paint the biological variety that is such a part of Florida's character.Restoring and preserving the springs and all the life within them is one of Tolbert's goals. Doing so means learning about them from multiple perspectives, which is among the purposes of AquiFERious, she said. "I'd like people to immerse themselves in art and the ideas that inform it and the artist's journey, just as they immerse themselves in the springs," Tolbert said. "I'd like that paradigm shift of considering art and science both to illuminate reality, the poetic as perhaps the only way to wholly understand it.
The Floridan Aquifer
The technical name for this porous limestone that underlines the Florida peninsula – in some spots thousands of feet thick – is the Floridan aquifer. Tens of thousands of years ago, when the Florida landmass emerged from the sea, the lime rock "trapped" the sea water.
The exposed limestone collects freshwater, and below this freshwater lens, the rock holds saltwater. Over the years, the rains and freshwater began to form tunnels and cavities, collecting in what would become a giant reservoir. In some areas, where the crust is thin, the water bubbles to the surface.
The result is more than 600 freshwater springs. Some are small – barely noticeable, really – while others are large enough to pump out millions of gallons of water a day, enough to feed a major river. Early humans gathered by the springs where they fed on mastodon, mammoth, ground sloth, giant armadillo and beaver. Today, divers sometimes find bones and teeth, as well as stone-age tools, from this forgotten age.
The “Original” Tourist Attraction
In 1860, the first steamboats chugged up the Ocklawaha River and then Silver Run, which was fed by one of Florida’s fabled natural wonders. The tourists loved to watch the fish, turtles and otters swim through the cool, clear water. Almost two decades later, a forward-thinker named Hullman Jones got the visitors one step closer by installing a glass viewing box on the flat bottom of a dugout canoe. Now, thanks to this “glass-bottom boat,” guests felt that they could practically swim with the creatures that frolicked in waters of the river and spring. Silver Springs soon became one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United States. In 1916, Hollywood filmed a silent movie, “The Seven Swans,” there, but it wasn’t until the 1930s and ‘40s, when Johnny Weissmuller shot the first of six “Tarzan” movies there, that the world really took notice. Other films, including the horror classic, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and the popular television series, “Sea Hunt,” followed.
Today, Silver Springs still retains much of its original charm. Visitors still line up to take the legendary glass-bottom boat tours, and kayakers and canoeists love to launch at the nearby Silver River State Park to paddle up to the head springs.
Florida State Parks
While some springs are privately owned, Florida has 15 state parks that preserve and protect the public access to the aquifer.In Northwest Florida, Ponce de Leon State Park has a main spring that produces 14 million gallons of invigorating 68-degree water every day. A dip in this “fountain of youth” is guaranteed to at least make you feel a few years younger. Near the towns of Suwannee and Fanning, Fanning Springs State Park, a hub of the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, is often visited by manatees which swim in all the way from the coast to take advantage of the year-round 72-degree water. Fanning Springs is also a favorite swimming hole for locals enchanted by the allure of the deep blue water. Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park, located 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 largest, deepest and most famous springs (thanks to a National Geographic expedition a few years ago) is Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, south of Tallahassee. With swimming platforms and a dive tower, the park is a popular swimming spot. Visitors can also board at the park for a boat tour of the Wakulla River.