Jim Hollis is a very patient man, and I’m clinging to his every word. It’s been decades — literally — since my last open-water scuba dive, and Hollis’ crash course is reacclimating me to the underwater world I first discovered as a mere babe of 14. I’m enjoying the irony of diving in Florida, a good 25 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. I’m chest deep in Little Devil Spring, looking down into water so clear it seems like air, invisible. a swath of brilliant turquoise indicates the spring boil, the place where an underground river percolates from limestone walls 50 feet below. The water, like most of Florida’s 750 or so springs, is a blissful 72 degrees on this hot day, and trees, some rising right out of the water, create dappled sunlight across the surface. It’s here in north Central Florida that the spongelike limestone geology deep below lends itself to springs — underground rivers that burst into glorious pools of liquid refreshment for us mere mortals.
Swimmers are splashing in shallower water; bubbles occasionally break the surface, indicating fellow divers below. I’m looking forward to rediscovering this silent world below and trying something new — a 100-yard drift dive along the Santa Fe River, which connects Devil Spring to Ginnie Springs, both popular freshwater diving destinations in this part of Florida. It turns out I’m in very capable hands. Hollis, who works as a dive instructor and guide with Ginnie Springs Outdoors (ginniespringsoutdoors.com), is the maestro; he knew Jacques cousteau (even spent time on the Calypso), and there are just scant degrees of separation between him and most Florida dive instructors. Hollis trained many of them.
For the next two hours I’ll test his patience, beginning just minutes into our refresher course as I float to the surface despite what must be 50 pounds of equipment and weights strapped to my back and around my waist. I do manage to hide an attack of claustrophobia as we sink into the bowl-like crevice of the Devil’s Eye, where other divers and the surrounding walls seem to close in on me. my mask keeps fllling with water (I’m sure it’s due to operator error), and I’m starting to float upward again as we enter the Santa Fe. Hollis, sensing my apprehension and continued frustration, uses distraction to calm me. he motions for me to turn around and look at the play of sunlight where the tannic river water and spring meet. It’s beautiful, I indicate with a big thumbs up. Oops — I don’t need words to realize he’s suddenly concerned. I quickly remember thumbs up means I want to surface, and I start digging deep into the cobwebbed recesses of my brain. What is scuba-ese for A-OK? I think. Triumphantly, I press index finger to thumb, creating a circle, my other 3 fingers pointed up.
As we glide along the Santa Fe River, just five feet below the surface, Hollis stops to show me a crawfish. It’s the size of a small Florida lobster. I’m calm and enjoying myself, though mindful that a motorboat overhead could disrupt the tranquility. The water is warm and brownish, and the silvery-green grass below seems to be waving us on. The occasional carp and mullet dart in and out, and a slider turtle plunges in for a visit from his perch above. Soon, a wall of clear water with a tinge of that bright turquoise welcomes us to a run leading to Ginnie Springs. Here, I decline the option of swimming through an open cavern to a submerged “ballroom.” Instead, I’m perfectly content to sit a few feet below on an outcropping boulder, letting a spotted sunfish explore the bubbles from my regulator. It’s motionless as it swims to my mask, turning to face me head-on. It’s serene and magical.
Ginnie Springs Outdoors offers diving and onsite instruction for first-timers (its $99 Discover Scuba noncertiffcation program includes equipment, air fills, instructor and diving fees) to the more advanced cave divers. Bring your own gear or rent from its fully stocked dive shop.
More Freshwater Springs
- Northwest - Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park
The Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed along the Wakulla River and its namesake spring, one of the world’s largest and deepest, just south of Tallahassee. Explore aboard a glass-bottom boat. floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings
- Northeast - Ichetucknee Springs State Park
A slow-moving current lets paddlers and tubers enjoy the leisurely two-hour trip down the crystal-clear Ichetucknee River, north of Gainesville. A seasonally operated shuttle takes you back to the headwater to do it all again. floridastateparks.org/ichetuckneesprings
- Northeast - Manatee Springs State Park
Snorkel along the spring’s opposite bank. Manatees favor the warmer water from November to April at this park west of Gainesville; in the summertime, follow the boardwalk to the famed Suwannee River. floridastateparks.org/manateesprings
- Central - Crystal River
A lot of springs are off-limits once the manatees arrive in winter. But tour operators in Homosassa Springs, north of Tampa, and along Crystal River, like American Pro Manatee Snorkel & Diving Center, offer year-round swimming. americanprodive.com