|Legend has it that early explorers named this grotto Devil's Den because the water steamed like a witch's cauldron on winter mornings.|
|Don't let the tiny entrance at Paradise Springs fool you. Beneath the surface, the cavern goes a long way down.|
I stowed my dive gear in the back of the truck and headed east for the backwoods of North Central Florida. Here in the heart of what natives like to call "the real Florida," you're never far from a dozen or so of the best freshwater dives in the state, if not the world. I had a packet of salted cashews to toss at my piehole; I had Lucinda Williams singing "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" in the tape player; I had two days to dawdle and dive. It was a win-win-win situation.
That's because neither heat, nor cold, nor rain can much mar a Florida spring dive. The year-round 72-degree water temp is like a rich man's thermostat: set thrillingly chilly on a hot day, toasty warm in sweater weather. And the vis often defies measurement, seeming somehow sharper than air, hyper-real, as if you're wearing 3-D glasses in your mask.
The water even tastes good, though you don't have to swallow any to receive the refreshing effect of these limestone fountains of youth. You always finish a spring dive feeling exhilarated, especially if you've been prowling around in the dark cavern zone, spooking yourself by shining your dive light into forbidding caves. "Turn back!" as the Grim Reaper signs advise. This isn't just the better part of valor, but the best part of diving in freshwater springs: The homeward- bound view, seen as if through the wrong end of a telescope, of the great blue eye of the sky.
THE FIRST LADY OF FRESH WATER > I drove out of the trees and into the little town of High Springs, home of the Great Outdoors Café (great eats cheap) and Extreme Exposure dive shop where I stopped in for a chat. "You going to Ginnie? Take a right at the Texaco, seven-point-two miles watch for the sign," they said.
They get asked a lot, since Ginnie Springs is one of the most popular commercial dive sites in Florida. There are several named springs on the wooded grounds beside the Santa Fe River, but the star attraction is the wide spring basin, Ginnie itself. This exquisite shallow bowl of bubbling limestone and lush aquatic grasses is roomy enough to accommodate canoeists and snorkelers, while divers cavort unseen in the cavern (which explains the perpetually percolating bubbles). Surprisingly roomy, the Ginnie cavern is also the most benign overhead space I've ever dived. The wide, arched entryway is quite shallow, at about 15 feet, and then slopes gradually to a depth of 45 feet, where an iron grate bars the way to the cave zone.
The bottom, of limestone boulders, rubble and sand, is well-nigh silt-proof for bottom bouncers, though I highly recommend gently fin-walking on the cavern roof, a technique I learned at a cavern class I took there. For all its friendliness, it's still plenty dark in the back of the room, where stone-cold catfish glare back at you, daring you to try some tight swim-throughs. When the flow is cranking, try this: Hold onto the iron bars and feel the mask-flattening force of the aquifer. Then let go and soar out on pure spring power--the Ginnie Springs signature move.
Also worthy of a dip are Devil's Ear and Devil's Eye, the former a crack in the earth and the latter a classic crater--both catering to the tastes of claustrophiliacs. The two springs are connected by a first-rate cave dive, but open-water divers are permitted to sample the drop straight down into the rock as long as they stay within ambient light.
The spring run containing the Ear and the Eye is a relaxing, scenic kick. Keep cruising past the Eye to the edge of the Santa Fe River, where the boutique bottle-worthy spring water mingles with the dark river to weird effect. Like a thermocline, the borderline goes all wavery like jet exhaust. Cruise along half in and half out--all brightness and light on one side, the other all gloomy and sepia-toned like a photo from the '30s--and you're in two worlds at once.
|Although it's only 100 feet deep, divers swear Blue Grotto has 200 feet of visibility.|
Devil's Den and Blue Grotto
COME ON DOWN, Y'ALL, THE WATER'S WARM > The biggest events in the history of Williston, Fla., were literally earth-shaking. Beneath the landscape of gently rolling hills and drooping live oaks festooned with Spanish moss, lies a porous limestone bedrock. Back when prehistoric horses the size of dachshunds and giant sloths (perhaps the same two I saw selling boiled peanuts beside the highway?) roamed the area, the earth caved in, creating a number of surprising holes in the ground. Two of the prettiest--Devil's Den and Blue Grotto--happen to be near neighbors.
Topside, Devil's Den gets the nod as Florida's comeliest sink. It's a true subterranean grotto, with sunshine shafting in through a natural skylight from which dangle filigree strands of leafy vines. Entrance is through a gap in the stone, down a long wooden stairway to a dock where a greeting committee of hefty catfish awaits, roiling the surface.
The dive is a classic sinkhole roundabout, circling the debris cone where the roof caved in, with lots of swim-throughs among the boulders down at about 65 feet where the cavern walls out. There are several cave entrances along the walls, some too large to be closed by grilles--but definitely not silt-proof, nor to be trifled with--evoking the somber ambience of catacombs, and lots of fossils in the rock. Or so we were told in the dive shop. My buddy Kurt, a dive instructor from Ohio, and I couldn't find them. Instead, Kurt tugged on my wetsuit sleeve and, eyes bugging behind his mask, pointed out a catfish as big as a one-man sub. Not the devil, maybe, but this was surely his den.
About a mile up the highway, and down a narrow dirt road, Blue Grotto wins the award for diver access. With gaping open-water pools and generous cavern zones, the sink also gets my vote as best-endowed down below. The brochure says it's 100 feet deep, and boasts of 200-foot-plus vis. What I wonder is, how do they know? But the divers I greeted coming up were all grins and superlatives. Who was I to argue?
NEXT STOP: MIDDLE EARTH > I even liked the directions: Follow the divided highway until it comes together, and then turn back at your first U-turn. You just knew Paradise had to be remote, and it was. I found the little dive shop deserted, so I moseyed back around to the farmhouse where the proprietor, a young woman with a baby and a dog, said she'd be along directly to sign me in. You can't get into Paradise alone, so I buddied up with Steve and Mike--two more Ohioans, as it happened.
Paradise is a pretty little sink, shaded by oaks and surrounded by lush tropical vegetation. But don't be fooled by the diminutive surface--it goes a long way down, a narrowing funnel into Middle Earth. The old Grim Reaper greets you at the end of the yellow guideline at 99 feet, and that's about as far down as any sane person would care to go. With 15 feet of turnaround space, it's not exactly a squeeze, but it felt plenty tight enough. We turned around and headed for the blue dot, and finished the dive circling the debris cone and admiring fossilized sand dollars many millions of years old on the cavern ceiling.
Hal Watts' Forty Fathom Grotto
FLORIDA'S GREATEST VOID > There's a lot of history in the Forty Fathom Grotto, not to mention at least 10 old cars, including a classic '65 Corvette at 105 feet. This former aquatic junkyard turned state-of-the-art technical dive training facility is full of interesting stuff (a boat, a sub, whatever sinks). The only thing it seems to lack is a bottom. Owing to the sink's vast dimensions, and the duckweed on the surface dimming the deep environs, diving is with certified guides only. You won't regret the extra expense though once you start exploring its man-made oddities--like a motorcycle suspended by rope at 40 feet--and natural wonders--its fossil sea cucumbers and maze-like caverns.
I stuck close to guide Dan Patterson as we made a 30-minute circuit of Florida's greatest void, and he made sure I didn't miss anything, or take any wrong turns in the maze of caverns.
At 70 degrees, the Forty Fathom Grotto is slightly cooler than most Florida sinks, and by the end of the circuit I felt a slight chill even with my 3mm wetsuit--though I couldn't tell if this was physical or metaphysical. Afterward, clambering up the 39 steps to sea level, I felt a joyful tingle, feeling that once again I had dodged, well, maybe not death, but depth.
|The sprawling Ginnie Springs complex includes the spring run to the Santa Fe River and campgrounds.|
GINNIE SPRINGS > Located in High Springs. From the south, take I-75 north to exit 399. Take U.S. 441 north about five miles to High Springs. At the first stoplight in High Springs, turn left. Continue through the next stoplight, then go approximately one-half mile to the turnoff for C.R. 340 (N.E. 182nd Ave.). Turn right on 340 and go about 6.5 miles to N.E. 60th Ave. (there will be a Ginnie Springs sign); turn right. About one mile to the entrance. From the north, take I-75 south to exit 423. Take S.R. 47 south. Two miles south of the Santa Fe River, you'll see a green sign, indicating the turnoff to Ginnie Springs. Continue to the flashing yellow light at C.R. 340. Turn left and go approximately two miles to N.E. 60th Ave. (look for the Ginnie sign). Turn left; it's about one mile to the entrance. Open-water divers pay $27; certified cave divers, $20. Open daily. Web: www.ginniespringsoutdoors.com.
DEVIL'S DEN > Northwest of I-75. From I-75, take Old Exit 70, turn west on Hwy. 27 and continue 27 miles to McDonald's in the town of Williston. At McDonald's, go straight (Hwy. 27 changes to Alt. 27) and continue one mile. Turn right on N.E. 180th Ave., the entrance to Devil's Den. Entrance fee is $27. Web: www.devilsden.com.
BLUE GROTTO > One mile past Devil's Den. Follow the same directions, except Blue Grotto's entrance gate is on the left-hand side. Open daily. Entrance fee is $27. Web: www.divebluegrotto.com.
PARADISE SPRINGS > Located south of Ocala. If you're coming from the north, take S.R. 441 south (Pine Ave.) to where the road splits. Take the first U-turn after the road comes together. Now head north on Hwy. 441. Where the road starts to divide, you'll see a black mailbox with a dive flag next to a dirt road on the right. Follow the dirt road a half-mile to the dive site. If you're coming from the south, take Hwy. 441 north and look for the black mailbox about 50 feet before the road splits. Entrance fee is $27. Open Wednesday through Sunday. Tel: (352) 368-5746.
HAL WATTS' FORTY FATHOM GROTTO > Located near Ocala off S.R. 326. From I-75, take exit 358 to 326 west. Go about seven miles and turn right onto N.W. 115 Ave. (you'll see a metal dive flag sign). Go approximately one-half mile and turn right into the driveway where another sign is located. Open daily. Fees range from $55-$125. Web: www.mrscuba.com.