(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

What can you say about a trip that starts in bright sunshine and ends in a downpour, but which has fantastic memories in-between? Well, youíre about to find out.

We have completed another successful trip to Florida to dive with manatees and explore caverns and springs. Due to the nature of the beast, we can run this trip with a smaller group and our intrepid travelers this year consisted of Ferdie Franklin, Matt Franklin (Ferdieís adult son), Barbara Potter, Glenn Suhd, and me (Ken Kurtis).

Getting there is pretty straight-forward. Most of us took a American Airlines non-stop from LAX to Orlando and Glenn took a Southwest one-stop through Houston. But there are plenty of flight options from which to choose.

The key to making this trip work is understanding that you need to be willing to drive. By the end of the week, we had covered about 600 miles overall. We were essentially going to do a loop around the mid-section of Florida so needed vehicles suited to hauling divers and gear and ended up with a Jeep Commander SUV and a Chevy Cobalt both of which worked out great.

Iíd neglected to realize that we were flying on Super Bowl Sunday (February 7). We landed right before kickoff, managed to find the game on the radio, and listened to the first half during our 2-hour drive from Orlando to Crystal River. Once checked in to our hotel, (Days Inn) we managed to go to the bar next door to catch the exciting finish.

We had two goals during this trip: (1) Manatees, and (2) Springs/caverns. But theyíre in different parts of the state, so itís almost like you do two trips. The way I like to plan it out is for the two days in Crystal River, make Wednesday the transition day, and then do the final two days up in the Branford area, heart of cave/cavern country.

We started out with great weather in Crystal River (though that would change), sunny and warm, which made for a picture-perfect first day.

I always get us a boat of our own so we can do whatever we want whenever we want. Iíve had a good experience in the past renting from Port Marina & Hotel and thatís what we did this time as well. I like to get a pontoon boat (about 25 feet long and can accommodate up to 8 divers with gear) and I like the style of the boats from Port Marina as they have a small platform with a ladder in the bow that makes getting on and off really easy. There are benches for people to sit on (gear bags &/or tanks fit underneath) and it makes for quite a good dive platform.

Iíve been going to Crystal River off and on since 1978 but on this trip, there were more Manatees than I think Iíve ever seen at one time before. There must have been over a hundred hanging out at Three Sisters alone, one of the prime viewing areas. But thereís a sad side to this as well.

One of the problems theyíre having in Florida this year is extremely cold weather. Manatees simply donít tolerate cold well. Thatís one reason theyíre found in Crystal River during the winter in the first place. Although they normally live in the Gulf or the Atlantic, during the winter the water gets too cold for them to stay offshore. So they seek warmer water inland and Crystal River has been one of their longtime refuges.

But even this has an upside. Thereís a manatee census done annually and because of the cold, more manatees are in the shallows this year than usual. They just completed their count and came up with a little over 5000 manatees spotted, which is about 1200 more than last year, and they were about evenly split between Floridaís east and west coasts.

The biologists who do this emphasize that this doesnít mean that there are 1200 more manatees in the population this year than last, but simply that they counted 1200 more manatees this year than last. (Their methodology does not necessarily extrapolate to an overall population estimate.) And they freely admit that their count may reflect nothing more than fewer manatees spending time in the ocean waters during the winter. It may not mean that the population is growing. But what it does mean is that there are at least 5000 manatees in Florida and thatís a good number.

But all waters, including Crystal River, are a little cooler than usual this year. The magic number for the manatees is 68 degrees. Any temps lower than that cause health problems for the manatees. So they try to congregate as close as they can to the outflow from the springs, as thatís their shot at the warmest water. And they seem sometimes reluctant to venture too far away. This means they havenít been able to eat like they normally do. And that means - even those these animals can run as large as 10 feet and 1000 pounds - many of them are underweight (for a manatee) or under-nourished.

In fact, there have been more Manatee deaths (77) related to cold stress this year than ever before. And given that theyíre already on the Endangered Species list, thatís not a good thing. But it does mean that we were able to see more manatees than usual, and at closer range than previously because they werenít always in the designated buoyed ďManatee SanctuariesĒ that are off-limits to people.

Itís amazing how curious and interactive the manatees are. Donít lose sight of the fact that a full-grown adult manatee can be 10 feet long, is bigger around than your out-stretched arms, and can weigh over 1000 pounds. So they definitely win based on mass.

The manatees like to get scratched. Theyíll swim right up to you, position themselves near your hand, and sort of nudge you to give them a little scratch. And when you hit the right spot, the manatee will start a slow barrel roll, exposing their belly to you. You can almost hear them going, ďOh yes!!! Thatís the spot!!! More, more, more!!!!Ē

But their easy access also means you need to be a bit more careful when youíre around them. You need to be aware of when they need to rest (they basically go nose-first into the bottom and become motionless) and let them initiate the encounter. And when they turn away, let them go. The basic rule of thumb is that if youíre facing the manatee head-on, youíre good to go. But as soon as you see the rear view, the encounterís over.

Crystal River may also need to change itís name because itís not crystal any more. Visibility around the main spring (King Spring) was MAYBE 5 feet or so and it was pretty much that way all throughout Kings Bay. Even when we went up to Three Sisters, maybe a mile away, we didnít get the super-clear water that we had seen in 2008. Some of that is due to the flow rate coming out of the various springs, which is also affected by the surrounding level of development. Simply put, as they build more and more in the area, they tap into water resources, which diverts/uses water that would otherwise go to the springs.

But as we pulled into Three Sisters on Monday there were manatees everywhere. And even though there were already three or four boatloads of snorkelers there, the Manatees didnít seem to mind. A few were inside the sanctuary boundaries (defined by swimming pool lane markers tied off to corner buoys) but many of them came out and milled around with the snorkelers. And some of them swam up a small channel to get closer to the three springs that give Three Sisters its name.

The nice thing for us was that the viz was really good once you got up inside the spring area itself. This area is not accessible by boat. You swim up the narrow channel, fighting the current from the springs outflow, and maneuver around the manatees. While the viz around the sanctuary was perhaps 20-30 feet, inside near the springs it was 80-100 feet.

We spent two full days as Manatee Seekers. And while Monday was an absolutely picture-perfect day with sunshine and warmth, the weather took a turn on Tuesday and it became cloudy, cool, and rainy. And while that presented a different photographic challenge, the manatees didnít seem to mind. In fact, I think we saw more on Tuesday than on Monday.

We also took time Tuesday morning to explore Kings Cavern in King Spring. This is a very small cavern and really gives you a good example of the hydrology of the area as the surface water around the entrance was very murky, with maybe five-feet of viz. But once you got down below 30 feet (thereís a buoy tied off and you simply follow the line down to the cavern entrance) the outflow from the spring cleans the water up significantly to maybe 50 feet of visibility.

Itís an easy cavern to navigate through as long as you realize all you need to do is keep moving ahead and youíll come to one of two exits. The second exit is a bit more scenic not because thatís where the water turns turbid again but because there are scores of fish hanging out at the interface between the warm and colder water and it makes for a nice picture.

The rain Tuesday (which was sort of a constant drizzle) dampened the spirits of some of our divers who decided theyíd gotten enough manatee shots in a day and a half and decided to take the afternoon off. Unfortunately, Iíd had a camera malfunction in the morning (dead battery) and didnít want to crack open my housing on the boat given the wet conditions. I wanted to keep diving. So we went back to Port Marina & Hotel, dropped off some folks, fixed my camera, and two of us went back out.

What a difference a few hours makes.

The biggest change once we got back up to Three Sisters was that between the time weíd left at 11:30AM and when we got back at 2:00PM, there had been probably over 100 snorkelers frolicking with the manatees. This didnít count the 30 or so who were there when we arrived nor the 20-30 more that arrived after we anchored our boat.

Unfortunately, these are people for whom the phrase ďsilt things upĒ has no meaning. The viz, which had again been close to 100 feet in the morning, was now less than 10 feet in general with lots of kicked-up particulate in the water. In fact, thereís a picture Iíve posted on the Picture Page for this trip that shows the snorkelers kicking up the sand and silt. Cíest la vie.

But we didnít let the diminished conditions or the rain dampen our enthusiasm for more manatee encounters. In fact, at one time during this period, I had four of them literally surround me and position themselves for some group scratching. It makes you wonder whoís herding whom when this type of thing happens. So we had more good memories to ponder as we made our way back to the dock to turn in the boat, and the rain drenched us in the process.

Thank goodness for the dryers at Days Inn. Between dives, because it was cool, weíd get out of our tops and put on sweatshirts, jackets, etc. The rain got those pretty well soaked. But an hour in the dryer made everything good to go.

Wednesday was our transition day to move up north to Alachua and cave/cavern country but we stopped at Rainbow River on the way.

This is a rather unique dive in that you get a boat (we arranged things through Adventure Diving in Crystal River) to take you about a mile and a half upriver where you plop in and then drift with the mild current almost all the way back down to the starting point. The dive itself lasts about an hour and a half. The boat floats with you all the way as a dive flag, surface support (if need more weight or run low on air), and occasional guide since you can surface and ask if youíre on the correct side of the river.

The whole dive is pretty shallow. Youíre frequently in 10 feet or less and I donít think we ever found anything deeper than 30 feet. But along the way youíll run into freshwater bream, perch, the occasional turtle, and sand boils, which are small springs that percolate up through the sand and literally make the sand boil.

One of the highlights of the dive is a place called ďThe Gar HoleĒ and itís a deeper, sheltered part of the river where numerous Longnose Gar hang out. On our dive, we saw probably 30 of them. And just beyond the Gar Hole is a small cavern with good outflow and very clear water right around the entrance, so it also made for a good photo spot.

I know that the passage of time makes past experiences seem better than they were but I seem to recall that the first time I dove Rainbow River, back in 1978, the viz seemed endless. In fact, at times, it looked like people were floating in air because the water was so clear. But this year, while the viz was good, it wasnít eye-popping spectacular. On top of that, there was particulate in the water which is bad for photography because it causes backscatter.

Part of the reason for this may be the amount of development along the river over the past 32 years. When I first dove it, there were very few houses and the put-in/haul-out spot was a dirt parking lot with an area carved out to trailer boats in to the water.

Now, there are houses all along the river, the parking lot is a very well-designed county park (K.P. Hole Park), but you can definitely detect a difference - despite all the conservation measures that exist in the area - in the overall quality of the river. Like everything, it changes with time . . . and not necessarily for the better. (Big sigh.) But we still had a great dive.

We broke up the remainder of the drive to Alachua with a stop in Williston, not for Blue Grotto or Devilís Den, but for the Hilltop restaurant, a great local spot weíd discovered back in 2008. It was delightful again. Once fed, we hit the road again and arrived in Alachua late Wednesday afternoon.

Alachua is just off I-75, slightly north of Gainesville, and is a good jumping-point for the heart of cave country in Florida which includes Branford, Mayo, High Springs, and the like. However, the area also received a tremendous amount of rain in the month preceding our arrival and I already knew that many of the rivers were at, or close to, flood stage and that meant some of the areas we planned to dive would be off-limits. The flooding causes the flow from the springs to reverse, the visibility literally becomes zero, and - for those areas within state parks - the dive sites are closed. This was going to play havoc with our dive plans for Friday.

But Thursday was our day to go to Ginnie Springs for an introduction to the world of cavern and cave diving. (We werenít going to do the latter but would likely see many cave divers.) Ginnie, because itís on the Santa Fe River, would not be as affected by the rains as the other spots (all on the Suwannee River). But when I called in the week before we left to check conditions and asked about a river dive, I was told that no one had done a dive in the river in almost a year because ď . . . the water is black.Ē I took that as a bit of an exaggeration. Boy, was I wrong.

We had another gorgeous day on Thursday, albeit a little on the cool side (just under 40 degrees) when we started out. Once we got checked in, waivered up, and briefed, we headed over to the Ginnie main spring to set up. I noticed that there were four other divers doing the same thing but also noted that they were lolly-gagging a bit so I encouraged our group to pick up the pace so we could beat the others in and have pristine conditions in Ginnie. This became a brilliant choice as we ended up referring to two of the other divers as the Silt Brothers over the course of the day.

The Ginnie main spring is the only area at Ginnie where youíre allowed in without being cave or cavern certified, because theyíve blocked off (with a welded grate) the entrance to the cave system at the back end. This is also the only place that non-cave-certified divers can carry lights. The reason for the light prohibition in the cave-accessible areas is to avoid the temptation of the light to luring you in further than is safe.

Ginnieís got a fairly large shallow basin (15í deep) where you descend and then you duck under a ledge and enter the first section of the cavern. At the back end of that (maybe another 30 feet in), thereís a permanent guideline which takes you into the larger, lower main room which is called The Ballroom. At the back end and bottom (close to 60 feet deep) you come to the aforementioned welded grate, through which 35 MILLION gallons of water flows daily. To put that in perspective, thatís almost 1.5 million gallons an hour, just over 24,000 gallons a minute, and over 400 gallons PER SECOND flowing past you. Short version: Thatís a lot of water rushing by.

So one of the things you do is fight your way down to the grate and hold on for dear life to feel the full force of the Florida Aquifer while the water rushes by you , and to have the requisite look-at-me-holding-on-to-the-grate-for-dear-life photo taken.

The dives in Ginnie last about a half hour, mainly because you can easily see all that there is to see in that time, and then youíre back out in the basin. Since we still had oodles of air, I suggested we kick down the 150í slough (run) towards the Santa Fe River to see how dark the river really was. My oh my!!!!

I will tell you right off the bat that, although Iíve posted pictures of this part of the trip online, the pictures donít at all do the visual experience justice.

Think of kicking through some very clear, shallow (5í deep) water and ahead of you is a wall of dark water. (The force of the outflow from Ginnie Spring is enough that it holds back the dark water of the river and thereís literally a line where the two meet.) Now picture that as you kick along and get closer to this, that the dark water now appears to be the darkest chocolate milk that youíve ever seen with gunpowder particles suspended and mixed in.

They werenít kidding when they called it ďBlack Water.Ē

In fact, when you kicked in to it, you literally disappeared from sight (and you couldnít see your hand in front of your face.) What was very interesting was that the top one foot, which I presume was fresh rainwater, was fairly clear and a lot of the fish were hanging out there. But this water was dark/dark/dark. It was really an amazing thing to see.

Normally, weíd do our second dive by starting in the cave area of Little Devil, Devilís Eye, and Devilís Ear. Weíd take a peek at the entrance for each, then drift down the Santa Fe and go up the slough back into the Ginnie basin. But the dark water totally ruled that out. In fact, theyíre even got a tarp just beyond Devilís Eye (which makes Devilís Ear off-limits) to hold back the dark water from the river.

So we instead decided weíd take a break for lunch and then do a quickie dive/peek at Little Devil and Devilís Eye, drive the gear back over to the Ginnie main spring (theyíre about a quarter-mile apart), and then do a second dive there and call it a day.

When we got over to Little Devil, there were a dozen cave divers in various stages of entry or exit from the cave systems. The rule of thumb is that, in these areas, cavers always have the right of way. So we waited a bit and then made our way into the water and first took a peek at the entrance to Little Devil, which is really a very narrow, straight drop down (maybe 30 feet) to the cave entrance. Our plan was that Iíd go down and get in position, and then motion our divers down one at a time, to avoid disturbing the silt that lines the walls of the crevice going down.

Remember the Silt Brothers I mentioned earlier? Well, it seems that they came in shortly after we did. The way I noticed that was that as I was showing our first diver the cave entrance, it started raining silt on my head. I looked up, horrified, fearing Iíd find one of our group ruining the viz. But instead I saw Silt 1 and Silt 2. So I gave them a stern finger-wag (donít discount the severity of the wagging finger) and they backed off. More importantly, they stopped their constant finning. I got the rest of our group in and out and then we drifted down to Devilís Eye.

Devilís Eye is a essentially a round hole with the cave entrance at the bottom/floor of the hole about 15 feet deep. As I dropped down to check things out, there was a guy on a rebreather coming out and doing an extended deco stop. I could also see two more divers exiting the cave system. Pretty soon, they were also doing a deco stop on the shallow bottom of the hole and I decided that three divers already made it crowded enough and we didnít need to add open-water divers trying to glimpse into the cave area to the mix. So we just peeked in from the top and then got out of the water to go back to Ginnie.

I dread thinking what happened when Silt 1 and Silt 2 got there.

For our part, we contented ourselves with another dive in the Ginnie main spring, spent some time tooling around the basin photoing the perch and mullet found there, and then called it a day, with the requisite stop at the gift shop on our way out. But overall it was a very pleasant and educational day although everyone was quite happy to get a hot shower when we were done with the diving.

For Friday, the original plan was to dive Orange Grove Sink in Mayo, have lunch at Nellís in Branford (home of the best fried chicken Iíve ever eaten), and then wrap up with a dive at Troy Springs.

I already knew Orange Grove and Troy were closed. So the backup plan was to head back down to Williston and do two dives at Blue Grotto, come back up to Branford for lunch at Nellís, and then call it a day. At least that was the plan until we woke up Friday morning to a downpour that was predicted to last all day. My concern was that Blue Grotto would be a mud pit (itís got a dirt parking lot) and so the backup backup plan became to forgo diving for the day but to go take a look at Orange Grove and Troy to see how much they were flooded (and still have lunch at Nellís). That proved to be another interesting decision.

Orange Grove Sink is located in the middle of a wooded area and is part of the Peacock Springs Florida State Park. The state has really put a lot into the area which dive stations where you can prep your tank, ample parking, bathrooms, and a really nice boardwalk and stairs complex that leads you down to the entrance to the spring. When we dove it in 2008, we were all very impressed with how nice everything was.

But in 2010, much of the boardwalk - and the entirety of the entry stairs - was submerged. My guess is that it was under at least 10 feet of water. The Suwannee River, normally about 400 yards away, was now connected to Orange Grove Sink as it had spilled over its banks and ran all the way in. Really amazing.

We found similar conditions at Troy, only there the water was probably 20 feet higher than normal. The good news in all of this is that once the river crested, most likely the weekend after we left, it would take another two weeks for the waters to recede, and everything would return to normal. But it certainly was an interesting and rather awesome demonstration of the power of nature in a way that we rarely see here on the west coast.

All in all, it was a really nice trip and one weíll plan to do again in 2011. We had some phenomenal manatee encounters, had a great and beautiful drift down Rainbow River, and - even though we didnít get to do all the dives weíd planned in the second half of the trip - still got a good taste of what Florida cave and cavern diving is about.

So if youíre looking for something a bit off the beaten path to do, give some thought to joining us next year. Itís guaranteed to be unlike any dive trip youíve done before.

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