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

It’s a pretty unusual dive trip where, once you get to your destination, you log an additional 500+ miles over the course of the diving week. But that’s what we do each year on our annual trek to Florida to dive with the manatees and explore some springs and caverns.

This year our group consisted of the Crandall Clan: Walt, wife Susan, son Kiff, and Kiff’s girlfriend Joy Radecki. They dive locally with us often and have done the Sea of Cortez so there’s already a nice sense of camaraderie built in that only enhances the pleasure of the diving.

We all met up in Orlando, picked up our Avis rental cars (all part of the Reef Seekers package - Chevy Traverse for them and an Impala for me) and off we went on the 2-hour drive to Crystal River, arriving right around sundown Sunday evening.

One trick in planning this trip that I learned years ago is to avoid the weekends (and any holidays) like the plague. Florida's still a hotbed for dive training, both in-state and out-of-staters coming in to finish their open-water checkout dives, and the places we go can be teeming with people on a Saturday or Sunday. But weekdays, it’s a calmer pace and a bit less crowded and we like that just fine. So this trip always runs on a Sunday-Saturday basis, with all the diving done Monday-Friday to avoid crowds. Sunday evening is check into the hotel, set up camera gear, get something to eat, and then get ready for a morning start the following day.

We always plan on spending two days at Crystal River. This is to maximize our manatee encounters. It’s not that they’re hard to find (as you’ll hear in a moment) but it gives us the flexibility go to the spots where the manatees might be at the times when we stand the best chance of avoiding crowds.

We also always get our own pontoon boat (I get to be captain) which means we can go wherever we want whenever we want and aren’t tied to some artificial schedule. We rent our boats from the dive shop at the Port Marina & Hotel because they’ve got a nice configuration with lots of room on the boat and a front “porch” to use as the on/off.

One change this year was a requirement for me to get a commercial permit from the Crystal River Refuge office (part of U.S. Fish & Wildlife) because, since I’m escorting divers and photographing with the intent of displaying the works publicly, I’m considered a commercial guide/enterprise. No big deal as the office is 100 yards away from the Port Marina & Hotel and it gave me a chance to meet Ivan Vicente, who I’d corresponded with via e-mail a few times.

One of the challenges they (F&W) are always wrestling with is how to best protect the manatees while still giving the public access to them. It’s a delicate dance to say the least and each year there are some changes made in procedures, either in location of the manatee sanctuaries, or rules governing what you can and can’t do when interacting with the gentle beasts. (One area they’re discussing for the future concerns flash photography of the animals.)

Although it’s easy to think of some of the regulations as too restrictive (and some of the volunteer Manatee Watchers DO seem to sometimes get carried away with their protect-the-manatees goal), it’s also important to bear in mind that even during the non-weekend days, there might be as many as 200-300 people snorkeling with the manatees and most of them are not trained divers so they tend to kick and thrash more than a certified diver might. That not only helps kill the viz, but also can really hurt the animals as I’ve seen people kick a manatee in the head (unintentionally) just because they weren’t good at controlling their body in the water.

Ivan also told us that that morning (Monday), they were releasing three injured manatees that had been rehabilitated. It was going to be a big deal as they had a National Geographic crew there plus some local media and Ivan invited us to join them when the time came.

So once we got our permit in order and our boat loaded, we headed out. And we were bundled up. Normally this time of the year, Florida is a little brisk in the morning and then it warms up by about 11AM. But on this first day, at 7AM, it was 27º. Brrrrrr!!!! It was the coldest morning they’d had in a decade. Fortunately, we had checked the forecast ahead of time and were dressed accordingly. And since the water is 70º or so, it was warmer IN the water than out.

Our first stop was the manatee sanctuary at King’s Cavern, which is only a few hundred yards from the Port Marina & Hotel dock. Last year (2011), there were dozens of manatees at this location. This year, there were maybe one or two and they had no intention of coming out of the sanctuary. So we passed this one on by and motored up to Three Sisters, where we’ve had the best luck over the years and also where the manatee release was taking place.

And we arrived in time for the manatee release that Ivan had mentioned, which was running a bit behind schedule. Even though there were plenty of people around, as luck would have it, it helps to be in the right place at the right time, and I just happened to be standing in front of the release area with my GoPro handy when the time came. Not only did I get to shoot the whole thing, but they basically set the manatee almost at my feet as he got reacquainted with being back in the wild.

But the morning visibility was terrible. And by “terrible,” I mean 5-10 feet with lots of particulate and debris in the water. That makes it really bad for photography. There were plenty of people there kicking things up plus some of the manatees were exhibiting signs of mating behavior, which involves a lot of thrashing around which further mucks things up. So we didn’t exactly get the crystal clear conditions we had hoped for.

But after a break for lunch, we came back in mid-afternoon to Three Sisters and things had improved noticeably. There weren’t as many people there and there was enough flow from the springs that the visibility had cleared up somewhat. On top of that, the many of the manatees were as interested in investigating the people as we were in them, so it made for some really nice close-up encounters, the Holy Grail of which is when you start scratching a manatee’s back and they roll over and essentially say “Do my belly, please.” In fact, I had one manatee whose belly I scratched quite a bit, who then kept following me around for a good fifteen minutes and would rub up against my hand and when I’d start scratching again would once again do a barrel roll and present the favored belly for scratching. (It’s actually quite a neat experience.)

We also experienced something that I’d never seen before. While we were sitting on the boat in the main channel (as opposed to the slough that runs up to the main three springs), when we heard a commotion from inside the roped-off manatee sanctuary and realized that a couple of the manatees had started tail-slapping the water. Soon dozens of them were doing it and all of a sudden, as if it as a signal, all 50 or so manatees that were inside gave a couple of tail flips and moved outside the ropes. It was almost as if their union shop steward had said “Break’s over!!” and they all went back to work. It was loud, fast, and interesting to see.

Tuesday was more of the same with a visit to Three Sisters again the morning, a break for lunch, and then a return in the afternoon. Once again, the viz was very low in the morning but better in the afternoon. I also realized that high tide - which means water and gunk is flowing in - was around 9:15AM and low tide - which would mean water and gunk flowing out - was around 3:15PM. There may be some relationship with visibility and the tides that was affecting things (there certainly is when we beach dive in SoCal).

One thing we added Tuesday was an actual scuba dive and our first foray into a cavern. We dove the King Springs at King’s Caverns, which is a very short (10 minutes) and relatively shallow (40’) dive but definitely a good warm-up for things to come.

So after two really good days to start things off, we awoke Wednesday to begin our transition day and moved north. We packed all of our gear into our two vehicles and stopped by Adventure Diving in Crystal River where we met up with our guides (and boat) for our drift down Rainbow River, about 30 miles to the north. This is another dive I first did in 1979 and, due to (I think) over-development in Florida, it’s certainly changed. But it’s still a really neat experience.

We drove about a half-hour north to Dunnellon where the Adventure Diving guys put their boat in at K.P. Hole County Park and then we motored about a mile and a half upriver. Rainbow River flows at about a mile an hour so the plan is to put in, you drift (one of our people did the entire dive as a snorkel), the boat drifts with you, and you see what there is to see. The whole thing takes about two hours and the depths range from perhaps 20 feet to as little as two feet (which is why you can snorkel it).

But along the way you’ll see various freshwater fish including the Longnose and Spotted Gar, turtles, sand boils, and a couple of small springs. All the while one of your members will be towing a dive flag so the kayakers and other boaters on the river know to avoid you (although I think it just gives them a better target) and you’ll be trying to make sure you don’t end up drifting into water so shallow that you get stuck. It’s actually a lot of fun and we had a pretty nice day to do it.

After we were done there, we head further north to Williston and the Hilltop Restaurant for lunch and then continued on to Alachua (NW of Gainesville), which becomes base of operations for the second half of the trip which is the cavern-diving portion.

So Thursday morning we headed out for High Springs and Ginnie Springs, about a 20-minute drive away. Nestled along the Santa Fe River, this is a privately-owned operation on whose ground reside a number of fresh-water springs. Though a number of them lead into caves, the main one (Ginnie) has been sealed off so it's accessible to open-water divers.

Our general plan here is for three dives with the first one being in the main Ginnie spring and into the cavern known as the Ballroom. At the bottom, at a depth of about 60 feet, a grate has been secured into the rockwork to prevent entry into the cave system. But through this grate flows about 35 MILLION gallons of water every day, so one of the things you do is get down there, fight your way to the grate, hang on for dear life, and pose for a picture that shows your exhale bubbles going sideways.

Our second dive actually takes us into the entries to the cave systems. For that reason, no dive lights are allowed (unless you’re cave-[certified) so as not to tempt you to go in further. It's also incumbent upon you to watch for exiting cave divers (they have the right of way) and to do your best not to stir up any of the fine silt that hugs the walls and floor of the entry areas. Because you're limited as to how far you can go, these are very short "dives." But we glanced into the openings at Little Devil, Devil's Eye, and Devil's Ear.

And then we got a great treat. One thing we used to do after Devil’s Ear was kick out into the Santa Fe River and drift downcurrent (maybe 1000 yards) to the mouth of the Ginnie slough. But in the last few years, the river has been black to where you literally couldn't see your hand in front of your face due to massive amounts of tannin in the water. This year, the river was fairly clear with visibility ranging up to 30 feet. So we were able to do our river drift where we found a number of turtles as well as some fish.

But the big thing here is not to miss the turn back into Ginnie. If you miss it, you've got to go another 1/4 mile or so downriver before you can get out. And to insure we didn't miss our turn (it's rather narrow and heavily forested) before we started the dive I had hung a shirt of mine from a tree limb along the river so we had a visual cue as to when to turn. (I don't know why the operators of Ginnie don't do something similar.)

After a break, our third dive was again exploring the Ballroom, fighting our way to the grate, and admiring the clarity of the water. It really is almost like you're swimming in air.

Thursday at Ginnie gave us good prep for Friday when we'd visit two of the classic cave/cavern locations: Orange Grove Sink in Mayo and Troy Springs in Branford. But as we drove to Orange Grove, I realized things might be different this year because when we passed over the Suwannee River, the river level looked down by a good 6-7 feet. And that would affect the springs.

So when we pulled into Orange Grove and parked, I wasn't all that surprised to see that there was very little flow coming out of the spring and that the water level was down a good 5-6 feet. It made the entry a little trickier because the water level was much lower than the bottom step of the stairs (sort of like the Avalon UW Park at a very low tide) so you just had to step gingerly.

We were able to go all the way to the bottom (almost 100 feet) and the Columbia cavern which leads into a cave system that runs throughout the state park where Orange Grove is located. And we got an appreciation for how tight things can get as we watched a tech team that had started before us maneuver their way in and lay out their lines. And they were an interesting contrast to the second tech team that came in after us. While the first team looked like they had it dialed in, the second team struggled with gear, flopped around like fish on a boat deck, and didn’t seem to be at all comfortable or having a good time. Sometimes, certain dives simply aren't for everyone.

After Orange Grove we took a lunch break back in Branford at Sister's Cafe and all I can say is that, if you're in that area and you don't go to Sister's, you’re missing a culinary treat. Best fried chicken around.

We wrapped up the day (and the trip) with a dive at Troy Springs. Like Orange Grove, water levels were waaaaay down. In fact, I saw rocks exposed there in the slough that goes from the sink to the Suwannee River that I never knew existed. And even though the water in Troy had a green tinge to it (as it usually does) it was a “clean” green with very little particulate in the water.

We were able to go to the bottom (60’) and look at the two small entrances to the cave systems there and then we would normally spend the remainder of the dive kicking down the slough and out to the river. But the water levels were so low, it made that nearly impossible. We made it only about halfway to the river - in water sometimes less than a foot deep - before abandoning the quest. But we did find a large clutch of juvy catfish that were hiding in the calm areas of the slough as well as some turtles.

So all in all, it was another very successful trip. If what you want to do, as I mentioned previously, is dive/dive/dive, this is not the trip for you. But if you'd like to meet some interesting creatures (manatees) and explore some interesting geologic features (caverns) then this is something you might want to consider for 2013 because we'll look to do it again next February.

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