Florida is a truly blessed state from many points of view… not least of which from a diver’s perspective. It offers up great wreck diving, good warm water reef diving and has wonderful surface interval distractions. But its really unique underwater experiences can be had in and around Florida’s fresh water springs.
Even if you are heading to Florida to dive the Keys or the wrecks off the Atlantic coast or any of the other great destinations along the state’s beautiful coastline, plan a few additional days to drop into the water at at least one of the inland dive sites you’ll find in the north-western quadrant of the state.
North West and North Central Florida is famous among techies for its extensive cave systems. Those regions of the state are one big underwater honeycomb offering challenging dives in a variety of cave types and depths from nitrox to trimix level. But even for divers without cave or cavern certification, Florida’s spring country boasts many great dives.
There are a number of springs where open water divers are welcome. Ginnie Springs, Devil’s Den, Blue Grotto, Forty Fathom Grotto among them. Water temperatures hover around 72 degrees and visibility can top 100 feet.
But one of the most exciting underwater experiences to be had in this area is on Crystal River. About 70 miles north of Tampa, close to the Gulf Coast, this neat little town is mecca for watching and snorkeling with Manatee.
Manatee (sometimes called sea cows) typically inhabit warm, shallow, coastal estuarine waters and cannot survive below 15°C (288 K; 60°F). Their natural source for warm waters during the winter is warm-spring fed rivers. The West Indian Manatee migrates into Florida rivers such as the Crystal River, the Homosassa River and the Chassahowitzka River. The head springs of these rivers maintain a water temperature of 72°F year round. During the winter months, November to March, approximately 400 West Indian Manatees (according to theNational Wildlife Refuge Service) congregate in the rivers in Florida.
"Snorkeling with these gentle herbivores is a really unique experience," says Bill Oestreich. Bill a long-time TDI and SDI instructor-trainer, cave guide and captain, has been running manatee tours out of his store in Crystal River for many years. "We have regular customers who drop in here for a few days before going across to cave country," he notes. It’s an activity the whole family can share, Bill explains. "We get seasoned divers telling us that their first encounter with a manatee in the springs around here is one of the most memorable experiences they’ve every had in the water."
Unfortunately, human interaction with manatee is not always as benign, and several boat/manatee collisions each year result in manatee deaths. "The real story with this," explains Bill, "is for boaters in these waters to follow posted rules, stay away from restricted areas, and keep a sharp look out."
For more information about manatee tours, SDI diver programs AND TDI cavern, intro to cave, and full cave diver education, contact Bill "Bird" or Diane Oestreich via www.birdsunderwater.com/location/index.html