Manatee Wrestling & Other Fun Stuff!

Alrighty, caught your eyes there, didn’t we?  No, we are not manatee wrestling, but we are here in Homasassa Florida to go diving with them this weekend.  That, plus visit a few of our favorite rivers, caverns & caves that Northern Florida is known for!

The trip started off on a great start, with me getting to the Philadelphia airport with plenty of time to spare.  That pretty much summarizes the great start portion of the journey for me!  I check my three big bags of gear at the curb, pass through security with no issues, and start down the terminal to my gate.  Hmmmm, it seems a little busy here today….what’s up with that? 

Well here’s what’s up – seems that a teenage airplane passenger using a “Jewish prayer object” caused a misunderstanding that led the captain to divert a Kentucky-bound plane to Philadelphia and prompted a visit from a bomb squad.

According to the Philadelphia Police, a 17-year-old boy on US Airways Express Flight from New York to Louisville was using tefillin, a set of small black boxes containing biblical passages that are attached to leather straps. 

When used in prayer, one box is strapped to the arm while the other box is placed on the head.

“It’s something that the average person is not going to see very often, if ever,” said the FBI spokesman. 

Friggin’ amazing, I guess no one aboard the flight had the Chutzpah to actually ask the young man what he was doing, assuming they are not familiar with this Hebrew practice.  But noooooooooo, we have to sneak around to the crew and they need to pass the word up to the cockpit and the captain needs to get his flight plans diverted to make an emergency landing and a rendesvouz with the Philadelphia Bomb Squad just cause of one religious American citizen.  Cheeeeesh!

OK, so all is good, and we reset Gov. Tom Ridge’s famous Homeland Security Threat Level Status light pole from ‘Red’ back to ‘Orange’ and get on with our lives.  That makes me wonder….do they even have bulbs in the blue and green lenses?  Will we ever see them lit? But I digress………….

By now of course, my flight is late as it gets caught in the queue of delayed flights from Philadelphia. So of course I miss my connection in Atlanta, which on it’s own would not be such a bad thing, except for the fact that I am picking up Dan Leone in Orlando and driving him to the resort!  Our plans were for him to arrive about a half hour before my flight, and come meet me when I landed.  Well I hope he packed a book or two, cause that is clearly not in the cards today!  When I get to Atlanta, the next flight to Orlando is oversold, so no sneaking onto that one.  And, the one after that is also!  Finally I am confirmed on the third flight to Orlando, and scheduled to land at 9:30, only four hours after my original plans.  So, I take a peek out of the big window at the gate, and realize I can see all the way to the next gate…….hmmmm…let’s look again, cause I am sure my view should be blocked by a big ol’ Boeing jet that I should be boarding in a few minutes.  Well no, my first glance was correct…..there is no jet there, cause it hasn’t even arrived yet!  Not looking good for Dan in Orlando, that is for sure!  Finally, an hour later, our plane arrives, we go through the unloading/cleaning/boarding  ritual, and we are off, heading southbound towards the land of Disney.

When I de-plane in Orlando it is after 11:00 and Dan is looking a bit haggard from his extended wait in the airport tavern!  Let’s get my bags and roll I say, and sure enough, there are my bags, heck they have been here and waiting for me for close to 4 hours!  So much for that official airline mantra about no checked bags flying without the passenger who owns them…just more rhetoric designed to appease the public.   We check in to EZ Car Rental, pick up our nice new Ford F-150 pick-em-up truck, and head west to the Homasassa Riverside Resort, our base of operations for the weekend’s activity. 

I pull into the resort and Bubba, the night clerk, hands me my stack of keys for the four rooms we have reserved.  “Hold them horses, pardner” I say, “we are four divers not four rooms!”  Oh no, he says, as he points it out in the reservation book, I have four rooms.  I can see that this argument is not going to go any place positive here at 2:00 a.m., so I say “how about we start small, and I only take one room tonight?”.  OK he says we can do that….I shake my head, collect our keys, and Dan and I go and move in.   Like a good daddy, I spend a couple hours nervously pacing until finally Dave & Natalie McLoughlan safely arrive, and by 3:30 a.m. I have everyone tucked in for the night, power-napping away in preparation for our first full day of diving.

Friday morning comes way too early, but there is no rush (can you imagine me saying that?) case we “own the boat” today, and Carl & Dave, owners of Adventure Dive Center in Crystal River, are as laid back as us!  So we get our gear together, pile into the van, and head up the road to connect with the Adventure Dive Center crew.  We arrive and the banter and joking begins immediately, if I did not know better, I’d swear we were in Indian Valley Scuba-Crystal River!  I love these guys!

So after the introductions, initial sarcasm & general abuse that is part of the IVS tough-diver-love program, we get to the ‘meat’ of the matter (what…did someone mention something about manatee’s tasting just like chicken?).  Whoa, whoa….let’s keep it politically correct here!  Remember Rule #1 of Scuba Diving? Of course we all do – Fill out the waiver!

So, paperwork completed, it’s time to watch the manatee movie, sponsored by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission.  Actually a pretty informative flick, and with some great videography, it prepares our crew for what we are about to see – 1,000 pound sea cows frolicking amongst us, as we dodge the kayak-based manatee nazi’s who’s sole purpose in life is to keep the manatees separated from those that love them the most! 

A short hop over to the boat, and we load up, hear the Cliff Notes version of the Coast Guard safety talk, and motor out into the Crystal River to our first location – Kings Spring.  This site is a little different, as it is a nice deep cavern very well camouflaged in the middle of an otherwise flat and lo-visibility river.  The bottom of the river in this area is 5 to 8 feet deep, and usually murky.  Today was no exception and the viz was around five feet or so in the river.  Two manatee refuge zones are located here, separated by a narrow gap where you can dive or swim to access the cavern entrances.  It’s really, really important to NOT swim into the manatee refuge areas, as they pointed out in the video.  So, I turn around to find the crew, and hmmmmmm…..I am alone here, let me surface and see where they have gotten off to!  Well, is that a manatee over there blowing those bubbles I see on the surface?  Nooooooo, it’s Team IVS, off the beaten path and smack dab in the middle of the refuge!   Psssst!  Hey – get over here!  Hurry!!!  Note to self -navigation might be good thing to emphasize this weekend!

OK, we re-regrouped and swam right over the top of the cavern area. Once you are there, the bottom drops into a rocky hole about 30 ft deep, and then you slide down the side, squeeze between a couple of rocks into a very dark slot, turn left, and viola!  you are inside the cavern!  That wasn’t too scary now, was it? 

Once inside, the cavern opens up a bit and by all standards, while the cavern is not deep, you clearly cannot see natural light from most vantage points once you are inside.  But oh well, who are we to point this discrepancy out?  The hole goes back about 100 ft, dropping to a depth of 48 ft inside.  Water clarity is phenomenal as this is entirely fed by crystal clear spring water.  It’s just dark!  And OK, maybe a little tight, especially if you follow me into some of the side shoots and little holes to see the catfish that like to hang out there!  But that’s all part of a good adventure!

So after our first initial drop into the cavern, we come out and ascend, and let everyone’s heartbeat fall back into a more normal range.  Breathing slows down, and I ask if we’re ready to go back in and actually see the cavern this time?  All answers are ‘Yes’ so we drop down, squeeze back in, and this time everyone is relaxed, and we enjoy cruising around inside, looking at the rock formations, wondering when it actually was that the big rocks we are swimming over fell from the ceiling, and even crawl into some of the catfish holes.  There’s a nice halocline at about 46 ft, where the salt water is mixing with the fresh, and it’s cool to stick your head into it and realize that no matter how hard you try, you can’t focus on anything!

After another half hour of play in and around the cavern, and we swim back out to the boat, taking the official path between the refuge areas this time!   Once there, we spend a little time searching for Dave M’s light in the silty murky bottom, but that official DIR-color black light isn’t giving away it’s position, so after a thorough search, we decide Dave needs a new light from Indian Valley Scuba (preferably yellow or some other bright color!). Cha-ching! “Oooops!  Was that my outside voice?”

Our second location is Three Sisters Springs, and as we motor up to the site, we can see where all the manatees have been hiding!  The water is thick with them, and there are manatees swimming, and resting, and nuzzling the snorkelers, and getting tickled and scratched – all cool!!  Of course, there are quite a few manatee-huggers, under the guise of “informational guides” crusing among us in thier kayaks, ready to give you a quick swat on the head with their paddle should you look menacing in the direction of any of the manatees.  We slip/fall into the water (it’s only four feet deep!) and walk over to the manatees.  A few of the local rocket scientists share their observation with us that our scuba gear might be a bit of an overkill for this depth, but we soldier on.  Everyone gets some great manatee photos, and some nuzzling and tickling, and finally it’s time to head up into the spring.  So we drop into the water, and swim through the narrow entrance to the springs themselves.  It is a very pretty swim, water depth varies from 5 to 8 ft, and the clarity is maybe, oh, 100 ft plus! As we swim we can start to see the sand boils, where the springwater is coming in from below, and the sand above is literally boiling as it tumbles and churns with the force of the water stream passing up from below – pretty darn cool! 

The springs branch off into three offshoots once inside (hmmmm…..maybe there was a reason to call it Three Sisters!) and although relatively small, they are beautiful, with white sandy bottoms, tree lined shores, a sunny day overhead, and lots of little fish and critters to amuse and entertain us.  And as we start to get a little bored with all that, here come the manatees – the union meeting must be over, cause they are starting to pile in!  First one, perhaps a scout, then here comes mom and a baby!  Very cool, very tolerant of us, very photogenic! Our morning is complete!

So back on board, we motor back to the dock, unload, and prepare for this afternoons dive on the Rainbow River.  But we have time for lunch, and the boys at Adventure Dive Center recommend the Taste of Philly Sub & Cheesesteak Shop across the street.  OK…..we are 1,000 miles from home, and all our zip codes start with 19xxx, so we are quite skeptical as to the authenticity of our sandwich experience.  Well one step inside the shop, and we think we have been transported right back to 9th & Passyunk in South Philly!  The owners fit the mold to a “T”, including the look, accent and mannerisms that you’ll experience at Pat’s or Geno’s – not to mention understanding what “wit” and witout” mean!  Needless to say, our sandwiches are absoutely delicious, and we have a new spot to recommend to everyone passing through Crystal River, FL!  

So we say our goodbyes, snap a few memory photos outside the shop, and drive up to meet Dave and the boat at K. P. Hole, the launching site for our Rainbow River drift dive.  Heading upstream towards the headwaters, the river is just beautiful, with lush woods, a few nice homes, and water as clear as can be flowing from the springs – as you might imagine when you get 400-600 million gallons a day of spring water coming up from deep inside the earth!  We stop just short of the end of navigable waters, and drop in at 5:30 p.m. for what is about to quickly become a night drift dive!  Gotta love the adventure – let’s do a first time drift dive for some of our party, in a new location they have never dove before, at night!  Like they say in the Guiness commercials – Brilliant!

 Well the dive turns out to be just fantastic and we see all sorts of cool things, including alligator gar, turtles, bass, catfish, even a couple of wild otters swimming with us – an hour and 10 minutes of drifting, cruising, up, down, around, just all great – OK, maybe almost all great, as this body of water has somehow managed to snatch another one of Dave M’s dive lights – those things must have magnets in them, set for the bottom of Florida’s waterways!  What a way to wrap up our first day of diving!  By the time we get back to the condo, Dan crashes for the night, Dave & Natalie head out for a quick snack at the restaurant, and I sit down to type this blog!  Such dedication, yes, I know!

Now it’s Saturday, and we have a surprise for our divers! In lieu of heading up to one of the springs today, we are going to have an opportunity to drift dive down the Silver River.  This river is totally primitive, completely surrounded by untouched forest preserves, and chock full of really cool critters above and below the water!  No one except Adventure Dive Center dives this river, and they only got the idea after years of running bird watching and nature lover tours on this untouched piece of Florida’s natural beauty.  The river can only be dove in January and February, cause during these two cooler months, most of the alligators and water snakes are in some state of hibernation, and unwanted underwater animal encounters are less likely!  How’s that for Indian Valley Scuba taking our divers safety and well being to heart?

So we head up, and it’s almost a two hour run to Ocala where we’ll launch for the river dive.  We load up the boat with gear, supplies, food, and beverages, and start the journey upstream against some really strong current.  The river is full of sunken logs and half-submerged logs and other hazards to navigation, and our captain is still learning the ropes, as he demonstrates with a few unintended 180 degree turns as a result of putting the boat a little too far into a turn for the current we are running against.  Oh well, we manage to get ourselves turned around each time, and the trip upriver is a photographers dream come true, with Anhinga, Cormorants, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Ibis birds out and about, wild Rhesus monkeys hanging from the trees, turtles of all sorts, and some really nice large American alligators sunning themselves on some of the half-submerged logs in the river – wait…did these guys not get the memo about it being hibernation season until February???

Our two dives there are great, with the current varying from mild to ripping as we go along, and some really cool buried underwater tree entanglement/death traps that we manage to avoid as we cruise along.  Armored catfish up to 30″ long are all over (those are Plecostomus to our aquarists), and the alligator gar and pickerel really added some nice new sightings to our fish list.  Lunch on board included Cheetoh’s and canned sardines, either packed in soybean oil or cajun style ( those who know me will be able to pick the flavor I chose!), beverages, and some good joke telling with our new friends Shane Rickman and Keith Fisher, a couple of good ol’ boys from Arkansas, and a local cracker, Capt. Jason Scott.  After that we pulled the boat, and headed over to Ken’s Winghouse, a Florida version of Hooters, complete with scantily clad waitstaff and icy cold brewskies – I’m thinking what more could we ask for?  (Natalie was rolling her eyes when I brought that up – go figure!)

And talk about small worlds..while I am eating my cell rings and it is none other than our Vandenberg connection, Joe Weatherby!  And he’s calling cause he just got to Crystal River and wanted to know who we would recommend going out to see Manatees with!  Well how much easier can this get, I hand the phone to Dave Mittelstadt, and Adventure Dive Center suddenly has a charter for Sunday! 

Sunday we opted to visit two of the more unique springs from our original itinerary – Blue Grotto and Devlis Den.  Blue Grotto is our first stop, and we check in, fill out waivers, and watch the informative (but frightening) video about diving the site.  Needless to say, this sorta freaks out part of our party, so by the time we are waterside,  it is touch and go whether to dive or not.  Thankfully we all agree to go in and check it out (liek the hundred or so other lemmings there that day) and turns out that it is not as scary as it was made to sound.  So we do the shallow loop, then the deep one, and work on our buoyancy skills, and have a nice dive.  After our first loop around the bottom, we head back towards the entry area, and Dan signals to me that he is low on air, so he is going up.  OK I signal back, and continue to work with Natalie on her hovering and bubble management, which is going great!  So we pop up and I see Dan hightailing up the stairs back to our staging area – strange, I think!  So I spend another ten minutes or so in the water with Dave as he is looking for a dive knife that he found (if you’re keeping score that is two lights lost, one knife found, for a minus one score so far for the weekend) but that he somehow dropped out of his BC pocket (making the score minus three).  So we look around, come up empty handed, and I take one last loop around the bottom of the cavern, and we surface.  Well there’s our friend Dan, standing at the dock, ready to go diving with a fresh new tank!  ‘Sup, I ask, and he says he’s ready to see the rest of the cavern.  Uhhhhh Dan, sorry to diappoint, but that was it – in spite of the video and the owner’s long explanation about the deep dark place, we have just seen it all.  Talk about disappointed, he was sure there saw more to see down there, and didn’t want to be low on air while exploring it!  Sorry!   And to add salt to the collective wounds, while Dave and I were down searching for Dave’s newly found (and newly lost) knife, Natalie reports that some kid taking a class came up and was proud as a peacock ’cause on his checkout dive he found a really cool knife!   

So anyhow, we got over all that, and we throw the gear in the car, jump in, still wearing our wetsuits, and drive about a mile down the road and across the street to Devils Den.  This is a really cool place if you have never dove it, with a subterranean chamber that is spring fed, and only accessible by your choice of either rappeling down through a small hole in the ceiling, or taking the more conventional approach, walking down the stairs.  We opted for the conventional approach today, and geared up and walked on down into the cavern.  The water is of course perfectly crystal clear, with depths to about 50 ft.  The entry point is a platform set on a pile of rocks that fell from the ceiling (making one wonder if more are due to fall today!) and the dive is a complete circle around the perimeter, with swim-thru’s, crawl-thru’s and just lots of neat things to explore and see.  A couple of large catfish patrol the place, there are some nice signs complete with the Grim Reaper and “DANGER OF DEATH IF YOU PASS THIS SIGN” messages – good guidelines to follow!  A few turtles, some smaller fish living in fear of the big catfish, and some barred-off entrances to the back cave areas that are really tight to squeeze through (whoops…was that my outside voice again?).  All in all a neat dive, and we spent another hour and twenty minutes there enjoying it and wrapping up a nice weekend of very different diving.

Driving home we stopped at Cody’s Steakhouse, and what a fine time we enjoyed over a great steak dinner and a super waitress.  Jokes were flowing, the laughter never stopped, and boy were those 32 oz beers all around good!  We ended with a great chocolate brownie sundae that fed four – talk about size matters!  Great cap on a great day with great friends!  From there it was back, a few hours for the gear to drip dry, pack up and head to the airport for our respective rides home.  Great trip, we’ll be back next year!  

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2 Responses

  1. I cannot wait to hear the details of the dives.

  2. So . . in the cheesesteak shop, did they understand “wit” and witout?”

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