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Crystal gazing

by Mark Webster

Reproduced from in focus 46. (Dec. 1992)

USA

The voice on the telephone drawled at me, "I can guarantee you manatees in the morning and 30 ft visibility in the afternoon!". I thought, if nothing else, I must test this outrageous claim, and so I booked a day's diving. The location was the town of Crystal River on Florida's west coast, a diving destination that I had heard much about and as an underwater photographer the thought of gin clear water was too much to resist.

I was visiting Florida on a family holiday, staying in Orlando and following the Disney World trail. However, before departure from England I had cunningly realised that the famous Florida springs were would be extremely close at hand and managed to sneak a Nikonos system in with the beach shoes and rubber rings! On arrival I bought a copy of Scuba Times in order to track down a likely looking dive operator. The list was surprisingly long so I narrowed down the possibilities by restricting my selection to those based in the town of Crystal River, where there are still quite a number to choose from. I finally decided on Talley's Pro Dive, not only due to the outrageous claim but also because the cost of a day's diving was extremely reasonable. I had come without any equipment and found that the range of prices for equipment hire, and the dives, was quite alarming elsewhere.

The day after my telephone call found me driving the two hours north west from Orlando to Crystal River, which proved to be an easy journey. My first impression was that the site looked very unlikely for a dive location. However, once kitted out, myself and the two other divers for the day followed our guide down a lane into the woods which finally emerged onto a narrow inlet of the Crystal River, where the boats were moored. We loaded up and edged our way out towards the estuary of the Crystal River where we had been promised we could find manatees. Most of the estuary is covered by the State of Florida Conservation Order which ensures that all boats travel slowly, so as to reduce the risk of collision with manatees. Dependent on where you encounter the manatees in the river divers may only use snorkel equipment to approach the mammals. This particular day was not to be our lucky one, for, despite spotting manatees in the distance, we were unable to get close enough to swim with them.

After our disappointment, we continued across the estuary to King Springs for the first dive of the day. The King Spring emerges from a cave system formed by freshwater flow through limestone rock. Water depth is approximately 30 ft to the entrance of the cave and it is then a fairly narrow squeeze into the cave itself, which reaches a maximum depth of 60 ft. The visibility in the cave system, where the spring emerges, is extremely good, but falls to 50-60 ft just outside. The river bed outside the caves resembles a dead coral reef, which is in fact the origin of the vast majority of the Florida peninsula. Much of the freshwater vegetation resembles Mediterranean eel grass, but the fish life is quite prolific. We saw shoals of very blue gilled chub, sheepshead and mullet before we returned to the boat for the return journey to our launching point.

Following a lunch break, we set out in convoy to our second dive site of the day. Our journey took us further inland, following the course of the Rainbow River, through heavily wooded countryside, again very unlikely looking diving country. Our destination proved to be a riverside beach, which our guide informed us was about a mile and a half from the spring head. We loaded up the boat and headed slowly up river, against a reasonable current, over water that was distinctly clearer than that of the Crystal River estuary. We passed over several small spring areas where the visibility improved dramatically - this was beginning to look good! On either side of these spring areas there are riverbank notices forbidding SCUBA diving in the vicinity of the spring. The water here had the proverbial gin clarity that we had been promised.

Once kitted up in snorkel gear I was quickly over the side to experience the stunning sensation of being suspended in water so clear it resembled air! The river bed was bright white undulating sand and in the depressions the river bed could be seen to "bubble" as spring water emerged. Weed banks, which shed fine streams of bubbles in the current, carpeted the slopes. These harboured shoals of bream and more blue-gilled chub. Estimating exposure in these very bright conditions is quite difficult due to the amount of reflected light and the photographer must be careful to meter on the dominant subject of the picture. The sun is generally shining here, which makes flash unnecessary unless you are targeting fish under overhanging trees along the riverbank. The maximum depth of the spring is 30 ft and the water temperature is between 65-70o, similar to the Red Sea. It is therefore advisable to wear a full 6 mm wet suit, as an hour or so in the water is very chilling - my rented 1/8" suit was definitely too thin!

Once our snorkel was completed we moved the boat out of the spring area to the point where SCUBA diving is permitted and kitted up for a drift dive back towards our launch point. The drop in visibility was dramatic, from 300 ft to a misty 20-30 ft, due to the current flow over a much softer river bed, which is easily stirred by boat and diver movement. The river meanders in large sweeps and the bends provide shelter from the current for both fish and divers. The most interesting species we encountered were freshwater garfish, or Peckerels (members of the Pike family), which hung in groups of 20 or so, close to the banks. These fish are surprisingly large, averaging 3 ft, and each group seemed to be patrolled by one or two very large lone males, perhaps 4-5 ft in length! The scene was very reminiscent of shoaling barracuda. As we made our way slowly down river, we also encountered many turtles in groups of two or three, but they were too skittish to get a clear photograph. Although I surfaced due to the onset of hypothermia, this dive and also lasted more than an hour!

There are many other rivers and springs in the immediate area of Crystal River, which could provide interesting diving for a week or so. Alternatively a dive in the area could be mixed with a visit to the Florida Keys or a family holiday - like mine. Accommodation is plentiful and cheap throughout Florida and with a favourable exchange rate and availability of cheap flights, a trip can be quite economical, even when compared to the Mediterranean or Red Sea.

Reproduced from in focus 46. Dec. 92 with kind permission of Mark Webster (http://www.photec.co.uk)


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