Updated: Jan 22, 2021
“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” V. van Gogh
C always had some trepidation when in water above her head. Two years ago she was brave enough to put on a snorkel mask and plunge into the Kattegat Sea off Hovs Hallar, Sweden. Rich beds of seaweed and turbulent, frothy currents massaged her eyes and body with the allure of the sea.
C's swim ignited a desire to see and do more in the underwater realm, so she enrolled in SCUBA classes when back in the States. Numerous e-learning, informal and formal pool sessions, and mask fills and unfills later, she was ready to take the final PADI open water tests. We decided to take these tests at Birds Underwater in Crystal River Florida, the same place I received a PADI Underwater Cavern certification some 30 years earlier.
Day 1 - Face in the Water...
Florida! Love to visit, but hate the bitey bugs. Except the spiders. Love them too.
The morning started off with a slow a-la-carte breakfast at the Best Western in Crystal River. The room was quiet and barely a pulse could be felt. I guess we sort of needed that after the long drive from Orlando the previous night.
We met the SCUBA instructor on the dock at Birds, signed paperwork, loaded gear and soon were off to the first dive testing site at the Blue Grotto resort. A pre-dive walk revealed that the dive dock was submerged about a foot. Even so, the dive entry site was clear, so the show would go on.
C put her kit on at the car and followed the instructor down to the entry platform. A giant-stride later and she was getting personally acquainted with the 72F spring water flowing out of the 100' deep cavern. In many ways, being in the water was much better than spending time topside in the rain and cooler temps (62F).
After a little bit of pre-dive nervousness, Carolyn took hold of the reins and completed all of the required underwater skills. She did well finding her neutral buoyancy, taking off gear, and other onerous tasks. Utimately, both she and the instructor disappeared down into the cavern for a few minutes. I heard later that she and the instructor had popped into the infamous Blue Grotto diving bell secured to the underside of the cavern roof.
While they trained, I snorkeled around entry site hopeful for a glimpse of some soft shell turtles. None materialized so I periodically dove down to photo C on the dive platforms. Schools of bluegill fish hung around divers and snorkelers alike, looking for something edible to fall off someone's kit.
The air tanks eventually ran low, signaling an end to the day. C and I thankfully loaded up the cars and headed back to Crystal River. Along the way we traded stories of success and learning.
Day 2 - Manatee kisses...
C and I arose too early for breakfast and drove down to the docks at Birds. Today was manatee day! Both of us were excited past belief that we might be with a manatee in its own environment.
Other manatee tour enthusiasts filtered into Birds, filled out the paperwork, and watch a DO NOT DO THIS video. No petting, no grabbing, no rides, no feeding, no manatee names and phone numbers, etc. Who knew that Crystal River was one of only two places in the US where manatee swims are sanctioned? I especially appreciated the emphasis that an army of volunteer web snoopers were vigilantly patrolling social media for any infractions recorded on video. Wow, that's serious. All good tips and well worth the possibility for seeing a manatee.
Ultimately we were all herded onto the pontoon boat and on our way to Three Sisters and Jurassic springs... all as the sun was just coming up.
Our guides, Lupe and Jessica, sighted manatees shortly after motoring into the spring area. After a few more words of caution we were all given a floaty pool noodle and ushered quietly into the water. It took a moment for all of us to orient with the noodles. Snorkel fins were not allowed, so all of us dog-paddled slowly out from the boat to meet the gentle giants.
A young manatee made the rounds amongst the snorkelers less than 5 minutes after leaving the boat. I was singled out for a very special moment of face kisses and arm hugs. It then went on for some heavy breathing and pony-tail munching with C. She was sure that she'd lost her golden mane to the over exuberant youngster, but was happy to find out he'd mostly gummed and swallowed, not chewed. Big mother manatees and babies showed up and the spring waters became a video shooting gallery. The water grew murky from manatee browsing and huge bodies propellng themselves along the bottom. Visibility reduced, sometimes all we could see was algae-covered manatee skin gliding past.
Manatee encounters lasted for almost 2+ hours and after a quick swim to an empty Jurassic spring, we were all asked to re-board the boat. C and I were the last ones out of the water. Go figure.
We arrived back at the docks by 10am with most of the day still ahead of us. Our memories of the manatees and their antic were fresh in our minds. In hindsight, swimming with the manatees was one of our fondest animal memories from the trip. We whole-heartedly recommend braving the chilly waters to watch and interact with these creatures.
Eager to continue the day, we showered and drove to the local Fort Island Gulf Beach to see what was up.
The Gulf beach forest was alive with anoles and butterflies, and the beach was covered by a mixed flock of terns, willets, and black skimmers. We were entranced by the flock's movements on the shore in response to people and also by the weirdly angular and candy-corn colored jaws of the skimmers. Our bird-thoughts were interrupted by Dolphins playing in the coastal waters, jumping out of the water whilst herding fish. Sigh... So much Nature happening there, so many pictures left to process…
Day 3 - Making the Grade...
Day 3 was Carolyn's last dive day! The instructor had her complete most of her skills while at the Blue Grotto, so he elected to do mostly-fun drift dives on the Rainbow River to round out the course and certification. We were joined by another diver, Janette, and her camera for the entirety of the morning.
The morning started with an upriver taxi ride from KP Hole County Park. All divers performed a giant stride into the river at the taxis farthest upstream terminus. Following gear checks, the girls and instructor deflated BCDs and were on their way, drifting slowly just above the waving eel-grass on the river bottom. Dive conditions were superb and the 40-50-foot visibility made spotting springs, turtles, fish, and diving cormorants a snap. IMO, this river should be called Nature's aquarium because of its clarity and life.
The dive ended with a quick swim across the river back to KP Hole, a drive back to Birds, and then lots of PADI paperwork so that Carolyn could finalize her certification.
After the flush of Carolyn's PADI successes had lessened a bit, we headed back out to Fort Island Gulf Beach with dinner to catch a last-night sunset. While eating dinner, a large group of percussion players started jazzing out, and a drum circle formed. The drums crescendoed as the sun dipped past the horizon. Dancers and waders stopped to take in the last bit of warmth in the sand. We headed back to town to pack for our final day before flying home.
Day 4 - Leaving Florida but Taking all the Emeralds...
Carolyn and I were on the road to Kings Landing (near Wekiwa springs) by 6 AM. Our plan was to paddle the local favorite river (Emerald Cut and Rock Run) all day (11 miles) and then head to the airport.
We were greeted at Kings Landing by Renae, the area manager and her two uber-helpful sons. They took care of the sit-on-tops while we suited up and snagged a free beer out of their cooler. Renae snapped a nice pic of us before bidding us a fair day on the river. Such nice people with such a well developed taste in beer!
A right turn out of the entry canal put us into the Emerald Cut, a sandy bottomed clear-to-turquoise watered beauty of a paddle. We slow paddled up the Emerald Cut savoring the lush foliage, wading birds, turtles, and even a cottonmouth. After an hour we turned the paddle downriver and drifted, drifted, drifted back down to our starting point. Downriver from Kings Landing the river took on a slightly more tannic or ice-tea color. Shafts of sunlight turned the water into amber, especially in areas where the sandy bottom poked through organics.
Carolyn was the first to see alligators. These kept getting larger as we floated farther down the river. The last was at least 6-7 feet long, and very happy to ignore us as we stopped for photos and then passed on.
Our paddle ended at the Wekiva Island take-out, where we met a shuttle back to Kings Landing. A nice change of clothes, snacks, and some cool drinks waited for us in the car. After some reminiscing about the paddle, we sadly turned our back on the fun and drove back to the airport.