FLORIDA (MANATEES & SPRINGS)
In central Florida, along the western coast, the West Indian manatees come inland during the cooler winter months to seek warmer waters, especially around Crystal River (north of Tampa). And the northern part of Florida is home to many springs and cavern/cave systems. These were the areas we wanted to visit for our Florida trip, February 10-16.
Fortunately, I’ve done this trip a number of times before, mainly when I was a wet-behind-the-ears instructor teaching in Richmond, Virginia. We’d drive on down and spend the week frolicking with the manatees and exploring the springs. And I say “fortunately” because this is a trip where you need some knowledge of the local terrain or you’ll end up with a logistical nightmare.
We ended up driving over 600 miles during the course of the week, visited about a dozen different dives sites but were able to do it all with only one motel change during the middle of the week. So it really is a trip where (as you’ll see) planning is key.
We started out by flying from L.A. to Orlando on Sunday, arriving in the late afternoon. For the 100-mile drive to Crystal River, we’d secured a rental Chevy Trailblazer because it had plenty of cargo room, makes a good dive vehicle, and has a roof rack to which gear bags could be tied down, giving even more cargo space. The Trailblazer turned out to be an excellent choice for us and got us in Crystal River safe and sound around 9PM Sunday night.
We specifically chose to arrive on Sunday because we wanted to do our diving Monday through Friday. Many times on the weekends, the places we were going to visit can be literally over-run with divers, certified and in-training, and we simply wanted to avoid that. It turned out to be a good choice as many times, we had dive sites all to ourselves.
We awoke to a gorgeous day on Monday and planned to spend the entire day exploring Crystal River and looking for - and hopefully interacting with - the manatees. So we drove over to the Port Hotel & Marina to pick up our boat. That’s right. You need a boat to get to the manatees and to explore Crystal River.
Before I go further, I want to lavish some praise upon the Port Hotel & Marina folks from whom we rented a pontoon boat. They were very helpful, making sure we understood how the boat operated, having us sit down and watch a 10-minute “How to Interact with the Manatees” video, showed us on a map where the manatee hot spots were, and just couldn’t have been nicer.
We also liked the boat we got from them. Their pontoon boats are about 10’ wide and 20’ long and have a number of benches to sit on and under which could slide gear bags. We had a total of six in our group and the pontoon boat was the perfect choice. A number of operators in the area rent pontoon boats but the one we got from Port Hotel & Marina was not only almost-new, it also had the boarding ladder in the front along with a small front “porch” which made getting on and off the boat really easy. (Other boats have side gates and ladders in the back which is a little less convenient.)
Although the name implies a river, Crystal River is the name of the town and the water area is known as King’s Bay. It’s a pretty big area and there are many spots where the manatees hang out. When I first dove this place in 1978, it was pretty much free rein. But since that time, the state of Florida and the federal government have taken much-needed steps to protect the manatees and their habitats.
So now when you go to the area, you’re required to watch he previously-mentioned 10-minute “How to Interact with the Manatees” video. The video explains such things as operating a boat around the manatees (idle speed only), how to interact with them (let them approach you), and explains the manatee sanctuaries (buoyed and roped-off areas) that are strictly off-limits to people. And the video reminds you that, since they are a protected species, there can be steep fines and even jail time for violating the rules.
With all that under our belt, we decided to start at the main manatee area around King’s Cavern, a 5-minute ride from the Port Hotel & Marina. We could see there were already two boats anchored so there was plenty of room for us. And we were pleasantly surprised when we got settled to see 15 or so manatee, all inside the sanctuary boundaries.
Water temp this time of the year is a fairly constant 70-72º. (In fact, that’s what it was - give or take a degree - at all the paces we dove throughout the week.) I wore a 5mm full suit with a lycra hood and that was just perfect for me.
The thing you need to understand about “diving” with manatees is that it’s more of a snorkel than a dive. This is not only because they can get spooked by the sound of the bubbles but also because manatees generally hang out in shallow water, so most of the time you’re in water where you can literally stand up. Not the most conducive for scuba diving (unless you’re enamored of dives with a max depth of 5-6 feet).
And there’s an interesting thing you learn quickly about the sanctuaries: The manatees know exactly where the rope boundaries are. If they’re had enough human interaction, they’ll move themselves just barely within the sanctuary to be left alone. It was really interesting on how often you would see people on the outside of the sanctuary and all the manatees just inside the protected area. So it’s special when the manatees choose to come out of the sanctuary boundary and especially special if they’re doing so to investigate you.
As we were plopping in the water, the other two boats were leaving so we now had the manatees to ourselves. And that worked out great because as we spread out and just floated on the surface, the manatees started coming under the sanctuary boundaries to investigate us. And it seemed that within 10 minutes, we all had 4 or 5 manatees who had glommed on to us.
Now this is even more impressive when you realize that a full-grown adult manatee can be up to 10 feet long and weigh in at 1000 pounds. Even the calves are pretty large, perhaps 4-6 feet long and 400-600 pounds. And while they’re gentle creatures and fairly slow-moving, when they come up to you and rub against you, you’ll know it.
The other “problem” we had at King’s Cavern was visibility. Florida’s going through a drought and the Florida Aquifer, which is the interconnection of al the underground rivers and streams that form a matrix underneath and throughout the state, has been diminished by the lack of water.
What this means that many of the springs throughout Florida aren’t pumping out as much water as they usually do and the adjacent rivers are at low levels as well. What this specifically meant at King’s Cavern was low vis, maybe 10 feet at most. But that didn’t stop us from staying in the water for over an hour with the manatees and having the time of our lives.
After a break for lunch, we decided to head to a different part of King’s Bay called Three Sisters. It’s a series of three springs located down a canal in the middle of a residential area. The (slow) boat ride up there very scenic and, as we made our way up the canal, the water fairly suddenly cleared up due to the outflow from the Three Sisters springs up ahead.
When we got to the area, we found a very small (maybe 75 x 30 feet) manatee sanctuary whose lone occupants were a mother and calf. And, we had the place to ourselves. But best of all was that the two manatees were not only outside the boundaries of the sanctuary, but were interested in who we were. In fact at one point, the calf kept coming over to me and rubbing himself on my bright orange strobe. Really fun and we spent another almost two hours with these manatees as well as kicked into a small pond to explore the three springs that make up the Three Sisters.
Our plan on Tuesday was to spend half a day in King’s Bay and then half a day drifting the Rainbow River, about a 45-minute drive away. We dealt with Plantation Inn for both of these (pontoon boat was OK, but we liked the other one better) and got a nice, early start. We decided that since we only had a few hours, we should head back up to Three Sisters for the clear water and the fact that it was our “secret” spot.
Oooops. Word must have gotten out. When we rounded the corner in the canal to the springs, there were already seven boats anchored there with dozens of people in the water. But, as we maneuvered between the boats and people to find a spot to anchor, we could see that on this morning, there were dozens and dozens of manatees resting inside the boundaries of the small sanctuary. In fact, once I got in the water and tallied, I lost count after 30. Really amazing.
It was also amazing to again see how the manatees interacted (or chose not to) with the people in the water. Every one of the manatees was inside the boundaries of the sanctuary, some just barely inside the rope marker floats. So it seemed clear once again that they knew where they could be left alone (which is proof that these sanctuaries are working). And it was interesting to see how they behaved when they came out of the sanctuary.
Manatees can move themselves either by using the claws on the end of their front flippers to “walk” along the bottom, or they can simply use their powerful board paddle-tail to move at a faster clip. When they were willing to interact with people (or simply curious) they’d be walking around seeing what was what. (Don’t forget that the water’s only 4-6 feet deep.) And if they’d had enough, they’d just drift back under the sanctuary ropes. But when they wanted to make a run for it, they’d gently maneuver under the ropes and between the people and then give a couple of flicks of the tail and off they’d go.
We also got to see some Stupid Diver Tricks that morning. A pontoon boat pulled up across from us and dropped their anchor on the opposite side of the channel, also in very shallow water, maybe 3-4 feet deep. Then we watched as their group all put on tanks and started putting on fins. I said to myself, “They must know it’s shallow. They can’t be planning on . . . ” And that was about as far as I got as their leader did a giant stride off the front of their pontoon boat and made it as far down as his waist. Then he turned and told the group, “Be careful because it’s pretty shallow,” and motioned them all to do the same thing.
Now aside from being mildly amusing, we should point out that this is stupidly dangerous. NEVER do a giant stride into water that’s not at least seven or eight feet deep. And if you don’t know how deep the water is, then do some sort of a seated entry so you don’t go plunging into the bottom. In all seriousness, this is a great way for you to break your leg and this group should be lucky it didn’t happen to them.
After we’d had our fill on manatees we made our way back to the Plantation Inn, grabbed lunch, and then hit the road for the drive to Dunnellon and Rainbow River. We were led by one of the Plantation Inn dive guides as you need a boat to do this drift dive so they tow that on a trailer and you follow (in your car) behind. Once at Rainbow River, we paid our entry fee, the guide put the boat in the water, we loaded up, and off we went.
When I first dove this spot in 1978, we started all the way up at the headsprings, but those are now off limits. What you do now (depending on how much time you have and we started a little later than normal as you have to be off the river by 5PM) is motor up river about two miles or so. Everyone gets off at that point and now you do a lazy drift down the river, letting the current push you along and meandering side-to-side to see whatever catches your eye, while the boat stays near you as a marker to other boats that may be on the river.
One thing that’s important to remember here - especially if you dive this on a weekend - is that there will be other boat traffic around. And since the river’s very shallow in spots (and even shallower now due to the lower water levels), you can really get hurt if you’re not paying attention to where you are, where your boat is, and where other boats are. It’s easy to get distracted but important not to do so.
It’s also important to remember - and we sort of forgot - that you’re basically going to be spending the whole drift going up and down and up and down and up and down. This can definitely take a toll on your ears with the constant clearing. Mine locked up a bit about an hour and a half into our dive. So I had to float on the surface for a little while (near tour boat) to let them relax. In the future, a good pre-dive dose of Sudafed or other decongestant will be in order.
The drift itself is fun. I got into the habit of looking under every dock that we passed to see what was seeking shelter. You commonly would find Largemouth Bass, Red-breasted Sunfish (easily spotted by their bright red bellies),and Pumpkinseeds with a little red spot on their operculum (better known as a gill cover). The best finds are the Longnose Gar that inhabit the river and there’s one spot (known as the Gar Hole) where they tend to congregate.
The other thing to look for while you’re doing the drift are not only some small springs that dot the riverbed, but also look at the sandy areas for sand boils. These happen when the water percolates up through the sand (instead of from a small rocky cavern) and causes the sand to bubble and seem to boil. Fun to watch, hard to photograph.
But the drift itself is very nice and easy and pleasant. We had an overcast day so didn’t have the advantage of sunshine lighting up the shallow waters in which we dove but it was good nonetheless. And there are great diver-friendly facilities at the staging point so it makes for a really pleasant day.
Wednesday was to be our travel and transition day as we were segueing from the Crystal River area and moving up into northern central Florida for springs diving. So we loaded up the Trailblazer, tied down some gear bags to the roof rack and headed off to Williston and Blue Grotto.
Blue Grotto is a fairly large, privately-owned spring system. It’s used a lot for training, both at the open-water level (and above) and for technical as well, and it’s one of the few caverns that doesn’t open into a cave system so it’s safe for divers without cave/cavern training and you’re allowed to carry lights in (since there’s no cave system to accidentally venture in to).
But even Blue Grotto, which is pretty big as caverns go, underscores the basic dilemma (at least IMHO) with doing these dives as an open water diver: They’re going to be relatively short because there’s only so much to see. For a lot of the springs, the big attraction (which has no appeal to me personally) is that they provide an entry in cave systems and you can go explore those (when properly trained and equipped). But for the open water diver, you cruise around a bit and after a while, you’ve pretty much seen the place.
At Blue Grotto, we arrived right behind a class of 30 advanced-divers-in-training from Kentucky so, once we got paid up and watched the orientation video, it was sort of a mad dash to get in the water ahead of the class lest they muck up the place and kill the viz.
One advantage that afforded us (and this picture is on the Florida Pix Page) is that we got a really clear view from deep inside the cavern of the entry area. And it’s really a pretty spectacular sight when you can be sitting 60 feet deep and a good 150 feet horizontal feet in, and you can look back up to the entry area and have very clear blue water and can clearly see divers on the platforms, in water coming to you, and practicing skills.
So it makes for a fun excursion, plus that have a special diving bell about 40 feet deep or so that has fresh air pumped into it and into which you can stick your head, remove your regulator, and chat with one other or pose to have our picture taken. Yeah, it’s rather touristy . . . but we all did it anyhow.
But one dive was good enough for us. So we hightailed it out of Blue Grotto to head down the road to Chiefland and Manatee Springs State Park . . . but not before we got some lunch.
One of the fun things to do on trips like these is to seek out the hole-in-the-walls where the locals go. And we found such a spot in Williston in the form of the Hilltop Restaurant. Not only was it a nice little local place, but they had Sweet Tea.
For those of you who have never lived in the South before, Sweet Tea is basically pre-sweetened iced tea. But it’s unlike any sweetened iced tea you’ve ever had before. And the secret is in how they make it. They don’t just dump sugar into iced tea. They make the tea by boiling it and dumping the sugar in while the tea is boiling. Then they let it cool down and refrigerate it. Yum, yum. You simply can’t take a regular iced tea and add enough sugar in to make it taste the way Sweet Tea does. Delicious.
So after we feasted at the Hilltop, we hit the road for the hour-long drive to Manatee Springs State Park. We paid our entry fee (a whopping $4) and went inside.
Manatee Springs is really a gorgeous place, right on the Suwannee River. (Yes, THAT Suwannee River. It’s not spelled “Swanee” and Stephen Foster never set foot in the state of Florida, let alone laid eyes upon the Suwannee.) The state has done a really great job of keeping the place pristine and they’ve built an extensive boardwalk system that enables you to get great views of the spring and the river, without trampling everything to death.
There are two places where you can dive, either in Manatee Springs itself or in Catfish Hotel Sink. The latter is covered in duckweed - think green oatmeal that floats on the surface of the water - and open water divers are prohibited from carrying lights in to it since there’s a cave system down below. We opted to skip that one.
Manatee Springs itself is a first magnitude spring which gushes out over 81,000 gallons of fresh water a minute, or 117 million gallons a day. The water runs down a 1200-foot slough or run and empties out in to the Suwannee River. This would generally be the area where the manatees would come. (In fact, there were two of them hanging at the end of the run where it empties into the river.) But the park discourages people from interacting with the manatees and most of the run is strictly off limits to both boats and kayakers or divers.
While the spring itself is very clear (and about 30 feet deep), we decided that with no manatees in the spring area, we’d instead skip the diving and simply enjoy walking around the place to soak up the natural beauty. So that’s what we did, hitting the road again in the later afternoon so we’d make it up to Alachua (north of Gainesville) before dark.
When we woke up Thursday, something seemed a little different. Even inside the hotel room, you could tell there was a chill in the air. Stepping outside, it wasn’t just a chill, it was downright COOOOLD!!!! Try 34º (note the thermometer photo on the picture page). Welcome to early mornings in Central Florida where the day can often start off quite chilly but then warms up nicely by lunch. But I definitely picked the wrong night to leave my gear in the car. My wetsuit was mighty cool when I finally put it on.
The drive to Ginnie from Alachua is pretty easy, scenic, and takes about half an hour. When you arrive at Ginnie (signs are well-marked at the turnoff from the highway) you pull up to the main building, sign in, pay, get an orientation video, are issued wristbands, and are good to go.
Ginnie’s a fairly large area, comprised of seven different springs scattered over 200 acres that includes areas for tubing, kayaking, camping, and - of course - diving, all nestled along the Santa Fe River. Because Ginnie’s a popular training area for both open water and technical divers (there’s an extensive cave system), we wanted to make sure that we arrived on a weekday and we really picked it right because there only three other people (cavers) diving.
Like many other places we visited, Ginnie’s really diver-friendly. There are plenty of picnic tables upon which to setup gear, boardwalks to lead you to the entry points, stairs going down to the water, and ample parking, along with convenient restrooms and showers.
We opted to start in the main spring at Ginnie. It’s also the only area where open water divers can carry lights because the cave system inside the cavern has been sealed off by a large metal grate so it’s impossible to penetrate further than your training dictates.
You start the dive in a large basin that’s likely to have some of the clearest water you’ve even been diving in. This is because the outflow from Ginnie Springs comes out of the cavern, through the basin, and then heads down s short run (slough) to the Santa Fe River. And even with the low water levels we’ve mentioned before, the flow was enough to keep the basin pretty clear.
At the base of the basin, you enter the cavern and can continue down a permanent guideline to the metal grate. To get a true feeling for the power of the water flow, try to hang on to the gate and feel the water rush on by you. Even in it’s diminished state, Ginnie still packed a pretty good punch.
The rest of the dive you can explore around the cavern. Lights are certainly helpful peering into the corners but you can always see daylight and the entrance so it’s quite easy to find your way out in case of a light failure. Once back out, you’re once again in the basin, where you will find sunfish, bream, and some mullets moving about. We did about a 30-minute dive which was about typically for a non-penetration cavern dive because at some point, you’ve pretty much seen it all.
After a break for lunch (you can buy drinks and food in the main building), we decided that dive #2 would be an “adventure” dive that would incorporate three springs, a drift down the Santa Fe River, and the Ginnie main spring basin as the finale. Since we were going to be out on the river itself, you’re required to carry with you a dive flag/float, which we rented ($5) from the Ginnie dive shop.
To do this dive, we drove our gear a few hundred yards over to the area of Little Devil, Devil’s Eye, and Devil’s Ear Springs. (This is also the area where the cavers saddle up.) We dropped our gear there, drove the vehicle back to the Ginnie main spring and parked, and then walked back to Little Devil to gear up.
The “dives” here are at best mini-dives for those only open-water certified. And, especially since you may have others entering or exiting the cave systems, you really want to be cognizant of not silting the place up. So watching your fins at all times is not only a good diving practice, but good etiquette too.
We dropped into Little Devil first. It’s pretty narrow, and not very deep. The “dive” takes all of two or three minutes. Then we drifted down a bit and dropped in Devil’s Eye. This one is definitely more interesting as you drop down a circular shaft and then enter a decent-sized cavern. Because we’re not allowed to carry lights in here (I wasn’t even allowed to bring my camera in because of my large strobes) you’re limited to ambient light and how well your eyes adjust to the darkness.
But also be aware, as you should be in any other cavern, if there are cave divers ahead of you, as there were with us. Because they’re carrying lights, if you don’t pay attention you could easily make the mistake of following behind them and go in further than your training would dictate. Be aware at all times of where you are in the cavern and always make sure that you can see daylight and the way out.
After exploring Devil’s Eye (and letting the cavers go ahead), we drifted a little further down the run and entered Devil’s Ear. This is the most interesting of the three for a number of reasons. One is that there’s a lot more flow coming out of this one and the narrowness of the opening further heightens the intensity of the flow. Two is that it’s the deepest of the three so it feel more like a “dive”, especially when you’re fighting you way down against the outgoing flow. And three, this is the one closest to the Santa Fe River so when you look up, you can see a distinct line of demarcation (brown to the right, clear to the left) where the clear water flowing out of Devil’s Ear and the tannin-stained water of the Santa Fe meet and fight for domination.
The total time spent in all three springs plus the time to transit from one to the other is probably no more than fifteen minutes. But now the fun starts as you continue out into the Santa Fe River and begin the drift downstream. Not only are you hoping to see interesting things in the water, but you’ve also got to be aware of where you are because you don’t want to drift past the slough that’s the outflow from Ginnie Springs it self, since that’s your desired ending point. (And a nice touch on the part of Ginnie owners/management would be to hang a marker from the trees so you don’t go drifting by. Maybe by next year.)
But we had a great time drifting down the river. One thing you can do is fan through the bottom to see if you can come up with any prehistoric sharks’ teeth. (I’m told they’re there but I’ve never found any.) And, even though the viz is significantly lower (about 5-15 feet and a murky green), you can still run into turtles, various fish, and many logs. It’s not going to be the greatest dive you’ve ever done (depths for us rarely exceeded 10 feet - it may be deeper with more normal water levels) but it’s sort of fun and worth putting on your “I’ve-done-that” list. The river’s a little cooler than the 72º you get from the springs
You finish up the dive hanging a left and kicking (or walking - it’s shallow enough) up the slough back to the main spring basin on Ginnie. The kick is a nice workout against a mild current/outflow but it that’s too much, just take off your fins, stand up (it’s about 2-3 feet deep), and walk. Stay closer to the banks for less current or just plow your way up the middle. Once back in the main Ginnie Basin, you can spend time tooling around there. Bear in mind that if you want to go back into the cavern, park rules dictate that you have at least 2000psi (unlikely) and that you follow the Rule of Thirds - 1/3 in, 1/3 to get out, and 1/3 to deal with contingencies and emergencies. Bottom line is that when you finish the Santa Fe drift, you won’t have the minimum amount of air so content yourself with exploring the Ginnie basin.
We were content to do two dives at Ginnie as we were able to do them at a leisurely pace, took a nice lunch break, and didn’t feel rushed at all during the day. And it left us well-rested for our final day of diving.
The plan for Friday was to hit two of the more famous spots and accessible spots in the Branford area, Orange Grove Sink (which is actually in Luraville) and Troy Springs, just west of Branford. Both sites are fairly large as these caverns go, interesting, and are appropriate for open-water divers without cave credentials.
When I first dove these in 1978, it was a much more undeveloped terrain. Orange Grove Sink was in the middle of a wooded area and the directions back then were literally to turn right at the light at Luraville, follow the dirt road, count the trees, veer off, and don’t drive your car over the side of Orange Grove and into the sink. Troy Springs was on private land and you had to go up to the house of the farmer who owner the place, let him know you were going to dive and make sure it was okay with him. And there were a few times when - if he wasn’t home - you would leave a note and check in with him on the way out, all the while trying not to disturb his cattle.
Things have changed in 30 years..
The areas are both still fairly rustic but both dive sites are now part of the Florida State Park system. You pay a nominal per head fee ($10) to dive the Park. Orange Grove is part of what is known as Peacock Springs State Park and Troy is in the aptly named Troy Springs State Park. The areas are well-maintained, there are benches around, parking areas, port-a-potties (Orange Grove) and restrooms (Troy), pathways and boardwalks to lead you down to the dive sites, and everything’s better regulated now.
Open-water divers are strictly prohibited from even carrying lights into any of the caverns in the Peacock area, if you’re an instructor who’s teaching you have to obtain a teaching permit, and the procedure is that you leave your admission pass, certification card, and teaching permit on the dash of your car while you’re diving so if the wardens come around, they know who’s who and have a rough idea of what they’re doing. Its not a perfect system, but it’s nice to see the changes that have occurred over the past three decades.
For my money, Orange Grove Sink is the quintessential dive of the area. Even today, you drive through a thickly wooded area (Peacock Springs - or Peacock Slough as we used to call it - is a bit further down the one-lane dirt road) and really feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. You walk down a boardwalk to the Sink, and then down a flight of wooden stairs to do the entry.
The sink it self seems not very big, perhaps 70 feet across and fairly circular and is covered with green duckweed. The duckweed sort of resembles green sawdust floating on the surface. Don’t let this deter you. First of all, it literally floats on the surface so once you’re submerged it’s not an issues, although it does give a greenish hue to the otherwise clear water. And just a light brush with your hand or fins clears away an area big enough to slide in. In fact, if there are divers already in, their bubbles breaking the surface will make a hole in the duckweed.
Once geared up, the entry’s easy: Sit on the bottom step, put your fins on, slide on to a nearby rock, and in you go. Once under the duckweed you’ll find that the sink funnels down with old fallen tree limbs criss-crossing your way down. At the bottom is the entrance to the Coliseum which would also take you into the extensively-mapped (28,000 feet explored) cave systems of the area. It’s possible - if you’re a trained caver - to go into here and traverse across to Peacock or other areas inside the Park.
For those of us not cave-certified, you can still get in fairly far and deep - close to 100 feet - with the natural light. And it’s a great view to look back up towards the surface, which should be clearly visible. And then you can move on up a bit and you’ll see the entrance to another cavern area around 60-70 feet, depending on the water level. Do not venture in this way. This is the passageway that takes you into the Throne Room, which is off-limits to anyone not cave-certified. The passage that lures you in is covered with a fine black silt which is very easily stirred up. So even if you only intend to go as far as the natural light will take you, it’s still possible to get in far enough that when you turn around you will no longer by able to see the way out, even though it’s a fairly straight shot back to the open area and daylight.
When I was much younger and an Assistant Instructor, another AI and I made the mistake of venturing in too far. Back then, you could carry lights and we let the lure of being to see in front of us obscure the need to monitor what was behind us. We made it to the Throne Room, perhaps 100 feet ahead. It was impressive all right. But when we turned around, all we saw was a black hole where a passage with daylight at the end should have been. It’s the only time in my diving career that for a split second I thought I was going to die. But I knew that what kills people is panic and by keeping our wits about us and knowing that we came straight in with no turns, were we able to plow through the blackness back out to safety.
I was fortunate. If you ever go to Orange Grove Sink, don’t repeat my mistake.
Because as long as you respect the dangers Orange Grove poses, you can dive it safely. And as we worked our way back up to exit through the duckweed, two cavers were preparing to enter - stage bottles slung underneath each of them - with their scooters to do a traverse. So we hung back and did an extended safety stop while they got ready. It also underscored for me personally, looking at all of the gear they carried, why I have zero interest in that type of diving. Too much like work.
After Orange Grove, we planned to drive back to Branford for lunch. When I first came down 30 years ago, the place to eat was Nell’s, which was then part of a motel known as Steamboat Bill’s. Steamboat - one of the early cavers in the area - is gone from town and Nell’s has moved next door. Nell has retired, but her daughters run the place and it’s simply one of the finest homestyle-cooked meals you’re going to find. And a bargain too.
We all had the all-you-can-eat luncheon buffet which featured an extensive salad bar, two kinds of soup, main courses which included the best and most heavenly fried chicken I’ve ever tasted in my life, fried shrimp, some calamari, various vegetables including some excellent green beans, grits, okra, mashed potatoes, and sweet tea. Plus they’ve got an ice cream bar for dessert.
You won’t lose weight eating at Nell’s and your cholesterol may go up a point or two but it’s worth it for the food and the ambience as it’s obviously a favorite hangout for the locals. And you can’t beat the price. Lunch for four of us with tax and tip was $41.
As we stumbled our bloated selves out of Nell’s, we clambered back into the Trailblazer and headed west to Troy Springs. Troy is more modernized than Peacock and has an extensive parking area, restrooms and even a gear-rinsing station. So it as the perfect place for our last dive of the trip.
Troy is really two dives but you do them both together. The first part is the sink itself, with some small springs at the bottom. It’s not a huge area and you can easily explore it in 10-15 minutes.
The second part of the dive points you towards the Suwannee River about 100 yards away and a very shallow slough. Not only will you find schooling mullet in this area (be aware of fishermen casting their lines from shore) but you’ll also encounter the ribs of a small wreck in very shallow water. This is all that’s left of the Civil War-era Madison which was scuttled at Troy. It’s scenic and is a good photo op if the light’s right.
With all the driving we did Friday, about 100 miles, drive/dive/drive/lunch/drive/dive takes up most of the day. So we wrapped things up, returned our rental tanks to Jim Hollis’ Scuba 7 in Mayo, and headed back to Alachua for our final night, where we feasted on ribs at Sonny‘s Real Pit Bar-BQ, on the other side of I-75 from our hotel. Yum, yum. Like we said earlier, this is a trip where if you plan on enjoying the local cuisine, you’ll need to work it off once you get back home.
Saturday morning we packed everything back into the Trailblazer, tied some bags to the roof, and headed down I-75 for the 2-hour drive back to Orlando. And by late afternoon Pacific Time, we were leaving LAX and heading home.
This was a great trip that offered a lot of unique diving as well as varied diving conditions. And because the front half of the trip is loaded with snorkeling and very easy and shallow dives, it’s also a perfect trip for someone without a lot of experience as you build up to a diving crescendo as the trip progresses. We’ll definitely plan on doing this again next year, and most likely the same week before President’s Day as well. We hope some more of you can join us and experience the diverse experiences this Florida trip has to offer.