Descent into the underwater caves of Florida

Long before theme parks began to grow out of Orlando’s swamps, Florida’s freshwater springs were some of the area’s main attractions.

Native Americans used the springs for thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. Reports of the conquistadors about the clear water gushing from the cave pits in the forest floor, fueled myths about the existence of the Fountain of Youth.

Hundreds of years later, when sulfur springs were believed to have healing properties, White Sulfur Springs on the banks of the Suvanni River became one of Florida’s first commercial tourist attractions. By the early 1900s, the debut of glass-bottomed boats gave tourists a view of Florida springs from a height of fish, and pristine underwater landscapes attracted early filmmakers. Dozens of films and television shows have been shot underwater at Silver Springs, a group of sources in Marion County, including “Sea Hunt” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

Florida has the densest collection of freshwater springs on the planet. Every day, more than 1,000 fresh springs in the state emit billions of gallons of groundwater. The springs provide critical habitat for aquatic animals, including Florida’s iconic manatees, and strengthen Florida’s inland water recreation industry. Visitors from all over the world come to Florida springs to fish, kayak, tube, swim and scuba dive through miles of underwater caves that connect springs to the aquifer and water pipes to the surface. Springs tourism brings money to the rural economy across the state.

And yet, despite its fundamental role in the state’s tourism industry, Florida’s springs are at the center of a slow-moving environmental tragedy.

Over the past few decades, a combination of development, population growth, climate change, over-pumping of the aquifer, and pollution from agriculture and wastewater has wreaked havoc on Florida springs. Many springs show significantly reduced water consumption. Others stopped completely.

The Kisengen Spring was one of the first recorded casualties. More than 20 million gallons of water a day flowed into the Peace River from the Kisengen Spring. The spring had diving platforms and baths, and during World War II the military used it as a resort.

Between the 1930s and the 1950s, the flow of water from the spring gradually decreased to streams. In the early 1960s, the well completely stopped flowing. A report from the United States Geological Survey found that groundwater pumping between the 1950s and 1975s reduced groundwater levels by a staggering 60 feet. As soon as the height of the water in the aquifer feeding the source dropped below the height of the source, the water stopped.

The steady decline in groundwater levels has also stifled the water supply to White Sulfar Springs, one of Florida’s first tourist attractions, which stopped for the first time in 1977.

At the same time, aquifers are depleted, pollution from septic tanks, sewage, farm fertilizers and limited animal feeding operations have flooded sources of excess nutrients, contributing to algae blooms in springs across the state. The white sandy bottom and wavy eel thickets shown in the 1940s and 1950s films have been replaced by thick mats of green hairy algae that cover all underwater surfaces. Without acne, the foundations of healthy springs, the ecosystems around springs are collapsing.

Silver Springs has accumulated so much algae that volunteer scuba divers remove them by hand. Every month, members of Silver Springs ’professional diving team come down to clean the seaweed from the bottom of the glass-bottomed boats so visitors can see the old underwater decors that divers also need to clean.

The state of Florida has officially acknowledged that most Florida sources were in trouble more than two decades ago when in 2001 Jeb Bush, then governor, signed the Florida Springs Initiative Act. The program provided the first of several follow-up funds for research, monitoring, education and assistance to landowners to reduce the flow of wastewater and fertilizers to the source and eliminate the decline in spring flows.

The data collected as a result of the initiative has allowed scientists to track the relentless decline of Florida sources in excruciating detail. Importantly, these data show that source protection efforts have so far been ineffective as nutrient pollution continues to grow.

Although many springs are in decline, ongoing restoration work in the Crystal River with a spring on the Gulf Coast shows that some of the damage can be reversed. Crystal River is the second largest spring group in Florida. Decades ago, the transparent visibility of the Crystal River made it a famous place for fishing and scuba diving. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the development, dredging of canals for settlements on boats and environmental pollution caused a cascade of events that led to the collapse of river eel beds and their replacement with algae blankets in the following decades. Crystal River’s famous visibility deteriorated until it rarely exceeded 10 feet.

For the past six years, Save Crystal River and Sea & Shoreline have used a combination of government and federal funding to remove more than a quarter of a billion pounds of algae and nutrient-rich mud from the bottom of the Crystal River. and plant more than 350,000 eel plants.

As transplanted flower beds have expanded, they have improved visibility and now even maintain a year-round population of Florida’s most famous vegetarians: manatees.

A successful Voumiar transplant project did not solve all the Crystal River problems. Rising sea levels and groundwater pumping continue to reduce the flow of water to the Crystal River springs, and the water coming out becomes a little saltier. While there is still work to be done, the steady improvement of water purity and the growth of manatee populations are supporting the thriving ecotourism industry and showing what can be achieved if state and local governments work together and use scientific data to save their sources. .

Jason Guli is an Associate Professor of Geology at the University of South Florida, a diving instructor and environmental photographer, science and expedition in Tampa, Florida. You can follow his work on Instagram.

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