Florida's spring-fed freshwater jewel offers subtle delights for scuba divers.
Turn. Around. Something speaks to me as I’m immersed in long swaths of sea grass, attempting to photograph them in their best light. I look around, and in front of me is an anhinga: a species of water bird known for the lack of waterproofing on their wings, an animal I have always wanted to photograph underwater. Seeing this bird dart from one bank to the other makes me feel like a giant, uncoordinated blob in the water; their agility and effortlessness is a spectacle, and I feel so lucky to be alive at this moment.
This is Rainbow River, in Dunnellon, Florida, a town you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re fortunate enough to have dived this glorious place. Having grown up in Florida, scuba diving both salt and fresh water, I can honestly say this dive takes the cake.
About 100 miles north of Tampa Bay, this 5.7-mile river is a genuine jewel, and lives up to its name. When sunlight hits the crystalline turquoise water, a veritable light show ensues. Glints of multicolored spectrums set the sandy bottom ablaze, mingling with the patterns of ripples reflected all around, while long, healthy kelly-green strands of sea grass — also called mermaid hair — play in motion with the water.
Anywhere from 400 million to 600 million gallons of water are discharged into the spring-fed river every day, making for an abundantly healthy, fast-moving river — 1.5 knots, on average — with depths of 25 feet at the deepest point and visibility of up to 200 feet on a good day.
In one day, I was witness to multitudes of turtles, large and small: yellow-bellied sliders, softshells, snapping turtles and red-bellied cooters, to name a few. Ultracurious bluegills love the look of themselves in a dome port, and will especially stick around if you stir up a bit of bottom with the stroke of a hand. Alligator gar — sometimes described as living fossils; they have survived millions of years essentially unchanged — hover near the banks, so many that I struggled to count them all. You won’t find a better taste of Old Florida underwater; I imagine the Timucua people who lived here centuries ago must have thought this place was paradise — it still is.
Lining the banks are a mix of cypress and oak, but the multitude of aquatic plants will command your attention; I would suggest any horticulturist get dive-certified for this river specifically.
Most peculiar are the spring boils that bubble up from the sandy bottom, pushing fresh water up from the aquifer; this, along with the many vents, cracks and little caves, helps create the massive discharge of water that keeps this river so clean and vibrant. The very best part about Rainbow River is you will never be bored. Even without the undulating underwater plants and the spectacular array of wildlife, where you start this dive will be nothing like where you end it — I liken it to visiting an art museum with multiple rooms and a multitude of different mediums.
First, you’ll encounter a boat dock or two, underneath which there’s a spray of silver-bodied baitfish, twinkling in the sun, adding to the discotheque light-show effect. Like floating on air, you’ll drift over a bright, sandy bottom and pockets of rich, velvety portions of tape grass, home to great lots of baby turtles. Meander a bit and below you are wide pieces of rock, in angular shapes and forms; this is where you’ll find cracks and fissures in their surfaces, along with little bluegills, inspecting them for any food they can find. Just beyond lies the graveyard of fallen trees, where old giants rest peacefully, stretching their limbs to greet anyone floating by. Farther still, you’ll encounter a conservatory of grasses and flowers — yes, underwater flowers! — like a garden of Eden. Lastly, it’s the grand finale, where you will be greeted with a plush, never-ending field of mermaid hair in every direction. Take it all in, and watch the way it ebbs and flows with the current, in swirls and loops, dancing to an unheard orchestra. This is the type of place sonnets are written for.
Not all that glitters is gold, however. Rainbow River is unfortunately vulnerable to nitrate overload from surrounding agricultural areas. State resource managers and advocates are currently in the final stages of adopting a long-term restoration plan, keeping the river’s magical quality intact.
Captivating, inviting and downright charming — be ready to slow way down and open yourself to the call of lovely Rainbow River, a haven for men and women alike, and a place to find true inner peace.
Information For Scuba Diving Rainbow River
WHEN TO GO Year-round, but try to stick with the winter months. The water is clearer, and you won’t need to dodge the tubers and kayakers.
DIVE CONDITIONS The river stays at 72 degrees F yearround, with a max depth of around 25 feet; you will be in the water for around an hour. A 5 to 7 mm suit is preferred so you can maximize your time. (If you don’t own a 5 mm or higher, you can rent a 3 mm a size larger than your normal wetsuit size and layer them.) The current is swift but not unmanageable, and you’ll have no problem turning or pausing to get a closer look at a turtle or anhinga.
OPERATORS Without a local guide, you might float directly down the center of the river and miss the highlights. Instead, meet your guide from Bird’s Underwater at its shop in nearby Crystal River; you’ll then travel about 20 miles north to KP Hole Park, a county park with restrooms and (cold) showers. At the dock, a Bird’s boat will meet you and take you upriver. (You’ll be in the boat for only a short trip, so don’t bring any water or food with you.)
PRICE TAG $65 per person, which includes tank, guide and boat fee. Bring an extra $5 to park at KP Hole Park.
TRAVEL TIP The earlier you get there, the better: You’ll have a better chance of seeing wildlife that way. Also, if you can, take a few moments halfway through the dive to surface and gaze along the banks of the river. You’ll see tons of interesting bird species, and you can try for some great over/under shots if you have a camera.
Itinerary For Visiting Rainbow River
DAY ONE Plan to camp at Withlacoochee State Forest at the Holder Mine Campground — clean, quiet and shaded by giant oak trees, it costs only $25 per night. If camping isn’t your thing, the Olive Grove (airbnb.com) is a ’70s-style A-frame on four acres of olive groves in Brooksville, Florida, about an hour south. For $65, you can savor endless stars, fresh-pressed olive oil and clean country air.
DAY TWO Post-dive, check out the Blue Gator Tiki Bar & Restaurant, which in cooler months has fabulous oysters. The fried-shrimp-and-hush-puppy combo paired with a Bloody Mary or Blue Moon beer is perfection, complemented by views of the Withlachoochee. Rainbow Springs State Park has a beautiful trail lined with azaleas, oaks and magnolias; Zen out next to its three waterfalls along the trail (watch for swallow-tailed kites, especially in spring). Don’t leave Withlacoochee State Forest without checking out its caves, a great way to experience Florida caverns without getting wet.
If you can manage to extend your stay a little longer you can also go snorkel with the manatees in Crystal River.