Manatee Madness – Crystal River, here we come!

And so it begins, the 2012 Indian Valley Scuba season of diving!!  We’re starting the year off in traditional fashion with a trip to wrestle, er, observe the manatees who are enjoying the warm waters of central Florida, along with visiting some of the rivers and springs there also.  These lovable critters congregate each winter in the warm-ish waters of the natural springs located in this area while waiting for the ocean to warm back up.  Come spring they head off to cruise the seas, returning once again late in the year, when the temperatures start to fall, to their winter homes in Florida.  Kinda like a lot of our more senior friends and neighbors, eh?

Our kick-off trip roster includes Tom Brennan, Mairead and JJ Twohig, John Jones, and the Beaver brothers, Keith and Craig.  Yours truly had the honor of leading this crew on a fun, laid back adventure offering a great variety of diving not typically seen on most IVS trips.  Our base of operations will be the Best Western Hotel and Resort in Crystal River, FL, conveniently located in the middle of all the cool diving we plan to enjoy!  Sitting right on the banks of the Crystal River, we are literally on top of some of the greatest concentrations of manatees to be found in the Sunshine State.

Now some factoids on the focal animal of our trip, the manatee:  Manatees (family Trichechidae, genus Trichechus) are large, fully aquatic, mostly herbivorous marine mammals sometimes known as sea cows. There are three accepted living species of Trichechidae, representing three of the four living species in the order Sirenia: the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis), the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), and the West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis). They measure up to 13 feet long, weigh as much as 1,300 pounds,and have paddle-like flippers, complete with toe nails like th. The name manatí comes from the Taíno, a pre-Columbian people of the Caribbean, meaning “breast”.  Yes, your guess is as good as mine on that name origin, but who are we to argue with the facts?

But first, we need to get there, and this is usually where all the fun begins!  Mairead and her dad, enjoying a bit of spring break from her studies at Slippery Rock University, enjoyed a leisurely drive down, visiting all sorts of neat places along the way.  The Beavers also drove, as this is the starting point of their adventure, heading from here to Key West, then on to visit Amoray Dive Center in Key Largo, before heading back to reality and the colder temps of the north.  John flew into Tampa, and my plans were to catch a 6:30 a.m. flight out of Philadelphia and have now-Florida resident Tom Brennan pick me up at Orlando airport and head west to meet the others.  Seems everyone was on time with their travel plans, well, almost everyone, as I called Tom in the morning and said he could wait a little to pick me up, instead of 1:30 it’s gonna be 3:00 now.  “No problem”, he says, “I have plenty of work to do here at home today”.  Bad idea to share that info Tom!  So, as one might imagine, the next call from me to Tom is “Make it 4:30”, followed by the “Make it 6:15 – that’s my final answer and I’m sticking to it!” call.  So, finally, Tom gets a chance to get caught up on work, and I finally arrive in the Land of Mickey to begin our fun.

Arrival in uneventful, and cannot even comment on the state of security along my journey (cause I think they are watching me!).  But I arrive unscathed, un-probed, and not too manhandled, to find Tom awaiting me outside baggage claim.  Great start to this trip; let’s hope it keeps on coming!

The hotel is pretty darn nice, and the location is superb.  Check-in is good, everyone’s happy with their rooms, and the first night is a winner!  We agree to gather at breakfast at eight to head over to Adventure Dive Center for our first day of fun – a manatee swim in Three Sisters Spring, a dive in Kings Spring, and then an afternoon of drift diving down the scenic Rainbow River.  We checked into the dive center, completed all our necessary paperwork, and watched the mandatory Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission video on manatee interaction.  From there we walked across the street (almost as convenient as diving at Amoray!) to the boat and loaded our gear for the morning.

Now yes, we are in Florida, but you sure would not know it from the chilly 50 degree air this morning, accompanied by a pretty nice breeze.  Brrrrr!  Well it’s a short ride across the bay to Three Sisters, and there are a few boats there already this morning.  We slip into the 72 degree water silently, armed only with snorkels, as the state has recently decided scuba diving is a no-no around manatees.  The good news is that the spring is literally overflowing with manatees, of all sizes and flavors, lots of moms & babies, sleeping, cruising around, checking us out, doing all the fun things that manatees enjoy doing.  The spring’s average depth is about four feet, with a few holes that drop down to nearly 20 ft.  The water is amazingly clear, and the manatees are amazingly active this morning, swimming around, checking us out, rolling over for us to tickle their bellies, and clearly not intimidated by our presence.  One big one takes a strange sort of liking to me, and comes in for one tickling session after another.  At one point she (he?) swims up, wraps a flipper around my arm, pulls me close, and puts its big lovable head in the crook of my arm, just sitting there like a puppy, as I gently scratch its head…kinda like something out of a Jurassic Park love scene.  Yes, strange animal interaction, but it was good for me, and left me thinking afterwards ….why do I suddenly have this urge for a cigarette?

OK, ok…enough of those thoughts!!   Finally, after about an hour and a half with the animals, we swim back out to boat where Captain Ned awaits, and we climb back aboard.  The breeze has picked up and my oh my, it is nippy now!  Sitting there shivering in our wetsuits, we make a unanimous decision to pass on the scuba dive in Kings Spring, and head back to the dock to warm up.  Yes, I passed on a dive…..but trust me…when the total temperature of the air and water combined is less than 120 degrees, you can do the math…..we were cold!!

Back on shore, we got out of our wet things and enjoyed a nice lunch at ‘Taste of Philly’, the most authentic cheesesteak source in the south.  Owned by a couple of ex-Philadelphians, the place is properly decorated with all the correct sports team logos (Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, 76’ers) and the accent by the staff is genuine south Philly.  Good food, good people, and we’re properly warmed up for the afternoons activities as we pile back into the cars and drive north to Rainbow River.  There, we meet Dave Middlestadt, the other owner of Adventure Dive Center, and we launch the boat for a drift dive down this scenic river.

The Rainbow River is the flowpath for the waters eminating from Rainbow Springs, to the tune of approx 500 million gallons per day.  Yikes, that’s a lot of water!  As a result the river is consistently clear and 74 degrees year round.  We meet at K P Hole State Park, and get a chance to chat with the rangers as we get ready.  Dave launches the boat, we pile aboard, and motor up to the limit of the river, right where the springs begin.  Final gear checks complete, we slip in to enjoy a 90 minute drift dive back towards the launch area.  There’s quite a bit of life in this river, alligator gar, turtles, various species of fish, and plenty of undulating eel grass to cruise by, or in some cases, through!  Today is a chance for John to observe marker buoy handing procedures on a drift dive as he prepares to try his hand at this skill as part of completing his PADI Drift Diver specialty certification.  We enjoy a great dive, and finally it’s time to pull the boat and head home.  Rumor has it that the Beavers have discovered a local Irish pub that we must visit, so we pack the cars and head back to town.

Now I’m thinking that I have been at this place in the past, but once we realize where we’re heading you can throw that memory out the window.  Sure enough, it is a real Irish pub, chock full of real Irish brews, and all the color and pageantry you’d expect in a real Irish pub … located in Crystal River, FL!  But the staff are great, and even I find something I can drink there.  We enjoy sampling a few of the local flavors, and then walk down the street to the Fat Cat restaurant.  This place could have been called the Twilight Zone, in honor of our waitress Savannah, who clearly was overwhelmed with having to serve a table of seven..all by herself!  At first humorous, then not so funny, to finally annoying with nothing coming out in the order it was intended, we managed to have a good time in spite of it all.  With all of today’s activities we call it an early night and head back to our bunks to retire.

Saturday dawns bright and not quite as cool as yesterday, so that is a plus.  Today are plans are to head up to Silver Springs to drift dive down the Silver River, a protected scenic waterway that is untouched by development along it’s entire length.  Typical of a true wilderness area, it has all the stuff you might expect to see in the wild, including monkeys and alligators.  The good news for the divers is that the alligators don’t digest food well in the colder months, so we get to taunt them as we swim by, knowing they are just thinking “Come back in a few months, sucker!”  But first we need to meet the boat and the captain, both of which are supposed to be sitting here awaiting our arrival.  Hmmmm, I am thinking, wonder what’s up with that?  So I call the shop, and suddenly I hear the guitar rifts of Jimmy Page playing in the back of my head to the tune of Robert Plant singing Led Zeppelin’s ‘Communication Breakdown’ ….  it seems that somehow in yesterday afternoons planning session the deal was I was going to swing by the dive shop this morning for tanks and that would be the signal for the captain to drive the boat over to meet us in Silver Springs.  Yikes….talk about dropping the proverbial ball here!  The upside is that the park where we are is beautiful and it’s a ver nice day, so the rest of the gang gets to enjoy a little early morning leisure while Tom and I high-tail it back to the shop to load some tanks in his car!  

We return and find the crew and the boat all set and ready for us, so finally, we load and get this show on the road!   We head about 4 miles upstream, drop in, and enjoy another very nice drift dive.  John takes the lead with the marker buoy, and quickly comes to grips with the realization that you cannot swim under a downed tree while dragging a surface marker.  He’s a quick study on that concept, and leads us down the river, taking in some very pretty sights along the way.  Finally he and Tom are chilled, so he passes the buoy off to me, cause Mairead still has about 1,500 psi left in her tank and figures we still have some diving to do.  Another walking talking pony bottle in the IVS family; she’ll be a popular choice as a dive buddy on some of our Spiegel Grove adventures!  In fact, as we drift along, I am wondering how long can she possibly last, cause my breaths are becoming increasingly difficult to draw.  Not to worry, we’re in five to ten feet of water, so a rescue scenario is not likely.  Finally, I signal to her, with a slashing sign across my throat, that she has won the longetivity contest!  I check and she still has nearly 1,000 psi to my zero….thank goodness no one will know about this…whooops!  It’s in the blog!  Another great day followed by another great gathering for dinner as Dave & Carl from Adventure Diving join us at Cody’s Roadhouse for some great laughter and good grub too.

Sunday now and it’s time to visit some caverns, so we load up some tanks (not forgetting them a second time!) and drive up to Blue Grotto.  We check in and start to set up on the benches near the cavern entrance.  It’s pretty obvious who the locals are and who’s from the north, as we’re walking around in t-shirts and diving wet, while most of the folks are huddled around campfires, bundled up in boat coats, and diving in drysuits.  Some thin blood in these here parts, I am thinking.  We watch the obligatory video, sign the waivers, and I give everyone the nickel tour of the cavern entrance area.  Suits on, we walk on down to the waters edge and step into the refreshing 73 degree pool.  First matter at hand is a weight check on the platforms, and once everyone is looking pretty good on their buoyancy, we head down into the edge of the cavern area.  In spite of the big buildup in the video presentation, it is a very short dive.  We visit the suspended breathing bell on our way out, and finally surface again near the dock.  With plenty of air left in our tanks, we head back in for the longer tour. past “Peace Rock” and get to venture on the limits of the light zone.  Couple of nice, although short, dives, and we’re ready to head to our next destination, Devils Den.

Conveniently located nearly across the street, Devils Den is a completely different set up, with a friendly laid back staff, nice picnic area, and subterranean cavern entrance.  There is no accessible surface water here, as the diving is within a collapsed dome that lies about 40 feet below the ground.  There’s a hole in the ceiling to allow ambient light to enter, so it is not considered a cave environment.  We unload our gear from the cars and Mairead’s dad JJ rolls into action as our personal valet parker, moving the cars from the loading zone ot the parking area.  Nice!  

It’s about this moment when we feel that we’re not too far from our local quarry, Dutch Springs.  We observe a fellow half-wearing a drysuit having words with the manager, and then she walks over towards us.  You can see by the look in her eyes that there is a “situation” that needs to be addressed.  It seems that the table that we are sitting at, one of fourteen identical tables in the picnic grove, has been ‘reserved’ by a dive shop from North Carolina, and they are upset that we got there before them (yes, at the crack of noon) and started setting up on that particular table.  Truthfully, we are having a hard time containing our laughter over the incident, and we select another table, moving our gear all of about ten feet from the first table.  Friggin’ amazing, but that is part of what makes this sport so colorful….. people like this!

The dives (we do two) at Devils Den are pretty neat, and it is an experience you are not likely to get elsewhere.  We finally wrap it up, and head back, enjoying our final dinner at Crackers Restaurant next to the hotel, with the NFL playoff games on the big screens.  Another wonderful trip in the memory books, with great friends, good diving, and an excellent time for all!  We’ll be back for sure!

Manatee wrestling & alligator diving

Once again it’s time for Team IVS to head south and enjoy the manatees and diving of western central Florida. 

Tony ‘one-glove’ Johnson, Jim “where’s that light” Dalhberg, Christian “I’m working on my screaming-in-terror” PADI specialty Johnson, and Dave Valaika headed down to Homosassa Springs Thursday evening for a five day dive adventure to the Crystal River area of Florida. We checked into the Homosassa Riverside Resort to two spectacular riverfront condo’s, complete with kitchens and patios.  First class start to what we hope ends up being a first class trip! 

Friday morning we headed up to see our friends at Adventure Scuba in Crystal River.  Carl & Dave run a first class operation, with the proper amount of “laid back” factor to fit right in with us.  We chatted for a bit, exchanged good diving stories, talked about the Lorinczy’s recent visit, and headed out with Capt. Henry for a morning boat dive on the Crystal River.  As we loaded the boat we had the opportunity to watch a pair of Osprey parents catching fish and flying it up to the nest to feed the young ones.  Pretty cool.

We loaded the boat and headed out to our first stop, Three Sisters Springs.  This is a cool little cut in the middle of an island in the river that has several natural springs boiling up through the sand, providing visibility in the 100 foot plus range.  Nice little 20 ft dive to explore the area, and the only thing missing was, the manatees!  Seems we planned our trip a few weeks late this year and the majority of the local manatee population was already off enjoying the warming waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  That didn’t deter our adventurers as there is plenty to see and enjoy even without the big mammals.

Second stop was King’s Spring, which is a cavern located right out in the middle of Crystal River.  The downside is that the viz in the river was maybe 10 feet (actualy better than last year!) and you have to plummet down about 30 feet into a hole in the rocks to find the cavern entrance.  But the adrenalin rush is worth it, as the cavern opens up to a nice large area, with a couple of tighter side shoots, and the vis inside is great.  Tons of fish hanging around made for some great photo opportunities too.

Well we’re heading back in now, and hey, we still have gas in our tanks!  Can’t send them back like that, where can we dive?  So we opt for Catfish Hole and head across the river to find it.  It is actually located directly underneath a private dock, so we geared up, make a hot-drop as we pass the dock, and swim on in, Helen Keller style, through the zero viz of the river.  Finally the clarity improves, and there’s the entrance – big enough for two divers at a time.  We slip inside, and sure enough, this spring is loaded with catfish!  Pretty cool to see, and quite a bit of flow too!  It’s small though, so definately not a headliner, but a great little stop on the way back to the dock.

We head back to the dock, unload, meet up with Dave at the shop, and head north to K.P.Hole state park, the launch point for our Rainbow River drift dive.  We board the pontoon boat and Capt. Henry motors us up to the headwaters.  We encourage him to take us all the way to the top, and he obliges.  As we motor upstream, Christian is thrilled with seeing the alligators sunning themselves on the shores and tree branches along the edges of the river!  Wooo hooo!

We drop in, and being a 100 minute drift down the river – yes, 100 minutes!  Way cool as we sail over and through all sorts of grasses, through rocky areas, boiling sands, and more, taking in the variety of cool life we see, including alligator gars, turtles, bass, and more.  Very nice way to wrap up the last dive of day #1.  On the way home we are trying to locate an Outback Steakhouse, and we stop for directions at a local gas station / convenience store / live bait distributor, and we connect with a local gal who happens to be “heading that way”, and was only stopping by to load up on Bud Light.  So we follow her, and it is like 45 minutes into the woods, as we all begin hearing the theme song from “Deliverance’ playing in the back of our  minds, before we finally return to civilization, and our Outback!  Whew!

 Saturday morning it’s time to head up to a few of the springs, but we opt to stop by Adventure Diving.  When we get there we learn about an open house being held up at Forty Fathom Grotto this weekend, so how can we deny ourselves that?  So we sign up, via fax, and head off to our first location, Blue Grotto.  The place is a’hopping, and we get the pleasure of watching the antics and procedures of some of the local shops and instructors as they prep for the water.  It’s always great to watch how others conduct their programs and see if there is anything we can take home to improve ours.  Today, that was not the case!  So we gear up and head in, with Jim & I taking the longer, deeper route, and Tony and Christian opting for the more cavern-like entrance area.  Tony, just recovering from some major ACL surgery, is feeling some pain in his shoulder so he stays shallow.  Interesting but clearly depth (or pressure) related.  We wonder whether it is the depth or his dive gear that is causing the discomfort.  After a few good passes through the darkness, we’re ready to head on to our next location, practically across the street.

It’s called Devils Den, and rightly so, for the intimidating entrance down a set of stairs and into the cavern.  Once inside, it opens up to a huge cave, complete with a hole in the roof for natural lighting, and filled with crystal clear water to a depth of about 65 feet.  They’ve got a couple of platforms there for training, and there are plenty of tight little restrictions to practice on as you swim around the edges of the cavern.  Lot’s of bars and signs clearly mark the recommended limits of diving here, but hey…am I hearing “guidelines”?  So Jim & I venture in a wee bit further, and even Christian got into the adventure, as long as we gave him a bright light to explore with!  Tony’s shoulder is really acting up so he surfaces early from this one.

Well it’s only 3:00 and our gear is already wet, so hey, let’s go diving at Forty Fathom Grotto!  We motor up and as we pull up, who is there to greet us but John Galetsky, our OMS sales rep!  Small world, eh?  John gives us the nickel tour, and we learn all we need to know about this 240 foot deep hole in the ground.  As we are touring, I think I hear another voice I recognize, and as I turn, there is my favorite mermaid Angela, so how can we resist pulling up a chair, grabbing a microphone, and sharing a little IVS live with America? And all we kept thinking was “where is Eric?”.  If you missed the live broadcast, you can go to www.scubaradio.com and click on the archives for the show that day!

After that radio interview session, we decided to explore this new Florida dive site. So Jim & I slipped beneath the conspicuously dark waters to see what lay below.  And guess what it was?  More darkness, as you might imagine.  At 70 feet we completely lost sight of any indication of light above us, and the viz remained a solid 5 to 8 feet, so Jim & I enjoyed a ‘night dive in the Cooper River’ experience.  We dropped down to about 140 feet but there was no sense in going any further, as this was never going to clear up.  So we circumnavigated the main area a few times, saw all we could see, and finally called it.  We got topside just in time to see the last of the free hamburgers being given away, so we settled for chips and some leftover salads.  Not exactly the Indian Valley Scuba foodfest we’re used to, but hey, a new experience.

Sunday morning Tony decided to sit out, with his shoulder really bothering him, so Jim and I decided to up the ante on adventure and add another new location to this trip.  So we headed out to find Paradise Springs, which was pretty highly touted as a good cave location.  We drove along and finally saw the dive flag under the mailbox, and turned up a long dirt trail into the woods.  We must have traveled 5 miles up that road and were just beginning to think this was a joke, when we saw another little sign, on the other side of the railroad tracks.  So we kept going another mile, and entered a property with another sign, continued driving further through the woods, past the horses, past the fields, and finally pulled up to a single family home.  A young lady greeted us outside, asking if we were there to dive (not sure what the other options were!) and of course we said yes, so she said come on in here to the combo garage / orientation center / full-service dive shop, and watch the video and fill out the forms.  The desk was a tailgate from the truck which was conveniently parked in the garage and obviously had not moved in years, and the video was informative.  Jim & I headed down to find the spring, and there it was, a little hole deep in a hollow, measuring maybe 15 ft x 25 ft in size.  And it sat about 50 feet below grade, so we humped our gear down into the hole to check this out. 

We were not disappointed at all, as the small opening really widened as you went below into a very wide area, chock full of fossils in the walls and a lot of cool fish, including large plecostomus catfish.  Jim and I explored the cavern area, then headed down into the abyss, to lay some line and explore the cave down to about 165 deep and maybe 400 feet of penetration.  Jim handled it very well, and it was a good dive overall.  He was gushing when he came up…he’s hooked!

After that we headed over to Ginnie Springs.  This is a first class operation, with a professional staff and a system that is both efficent and customer friendly.  We got our gear and headed up to the first spring, and who do we run into but Larry Green, training director of NACD (National Association of Cave Divers).  Great chance to chat and get caught up, and finally we’re ready to dive.  The area was completely flooded with the Santa Fe river running about 4 or 5 feet above it’s banks.  The river was completely black, and the folks at Ginnie had erected canvas barricades to keep the river water out and let the spring water flow outward, keeping the cave inlets clear.  Smart folks there!  We dropped into Little Devil, and explored this fissure down to about 40 feet, just checking out the “no-mount” entryway into the limited cave system beyond.   There is something fundamentally wrong when you have to take your tanks off to get INTO a tight space to explore….maybe it’s me?  In any case, we opted to keep our gear in place, and swam down to the next inlet, Devil’s Eye, where we dropped in, and explored about 200 feet of penetration, finally emerging through Devil’s ear, but out in the river.  The water was so black and moving so fast that as soon as we cleared the opening, we could not relocate it to go back in and reverse our path.  Absolutely amazing.  So we swam back over the barrier, and dropped back in, and this time laid line to explore the cave system under the riverbed, penetrating about 300 feet into the labyrinth.  Again, very cool system, and Jim did really well.

After that we drove the car over to the main spring, past the flooded campsites, and got in a nice dive in the ballroom.  Nice wrap up to a great weekend, and we headed back to pack and head back to the airport (and reality) tomorrow.