[The following story captures a moment in time diving in the main cave at the vintage Silver Springs tourist attraction outside of Ocala. In doing so, it retraces my own deep connection with this venerable spring---and intimates how extraordinary natural features like our rare freshwater Florida springs can leave an indelible imprint on the culture and memory of the people who care for the enchantment of our singular natural places here. This narrative essay is excerpted from my latest book, "Salvaging the Real Florida: Lost & Found in the State of Dreams"]
At the mouth of Mammoth Springs—the main artesian gusher in the historic Florida tourist attraction of Silver Springs—I have only two choices.
The first choice is to go straight up, some 30 feet to the surface, where at this very moment a gaggle of tourists inside a World Famous Glass Bottom Boat is getting a classic theme-park spiel. Within this reality, the spring beneath them is described as “a bottomless pit”, a dark hole in the earth that mysteriously spouts up millions of gallons of crystal clear water from somewhere deep and unknown.
The second choice is the bottomless pit itself. It’s accessed by a slender horizontal gash in the limestone bottom—a doorway to a water-filled labyrinth of caverns, caves and tunnels. Like much of Florida geology, the deeper it goes down into the rock, the older the history of the rock will become. There are stories embedded here, some from long ago in geologic time, and some from long ago in my own life. One is told in millions of years; the other in decades.
Down here, I settle on the sand-covered limestone bottom next to the dark cave mouth, my legs and fins tucked under me. The entrance to Mammoth is about five feet high and over a hundred feet wide, creating the affect of one giant smile, Batman’s Joker incised in the rock. There’s well over a dozen springs between here and the first half mile of the Silver River that seep or gush up from the limestone and dolomite, together creating a flow of 550 million gallons a day. Mammoth accounts for 45 percent of that upwelling, so the force of the water flowing out of its giant smile is mighty indeed.
Although my two choices today seem as if they’re exaggerations of reality, they frame the very real condition of Florida. Like so much else that is beneath the veneer here in this tourist-happy state, my choices are characterized by vast incongruities between what is promoted and what is actually going on. Melodramatic theme park spin often seems more real to visitors than the true nature of the place itself. And so, I hope to more fully realize—perhaps even to reconcile—the legends and dreams and real-life experiences that have conspired to bring me to the bottom of Silver Springs.
Here, I’ll accompany a small team of cave divers exploring the underground plumbing of this famous, powerful spring system. Within this mission, our goals are to watch for unusual troglodytic life forms and rare fossils, to carefully monitor the air in our tanks, and—perhaps most importantly—to time our ascents so the Glass Bottom Boats and the Lost River Voyages on their way to the giraffe and porcupine show don’t run us down.
I have vivid memories of visiting this same Silver Springs as a bright-eyed eight-year-old on a family vacation years ago. We drove the “blue highways” in the pre-Interstate days, back when Mom and Pop motels and Monkey Jungles were far more common than chain hotels and corporate theme parks.
At the Springs, my Dad, Mom, younger brother Jack and I climbed aboard a wooden glass bottom boat that floated over water as clear as our aquarium full of guppies back home. Beneath us, beach-white sand lay on the limestone walls of the spring basin like snow. We saw bass and bream and a small alligator swimming below us, as if we were watching a science show on television.
We were introduced to individual spring vents variously named the “Bridal Chamber”, “Spring of Fire”, and the “Catfish Hotel.” The set for the Sea Hunt TV series had been built in one cove, some of it constructed on the spring bottom, and we could still see it there. Rhesus monkeys screeched at us from the jungle-like shore. All that was missing was Tarzan and Boy swinging on the thick muscadine grape vines. And of course, that had happened too, back in the 1930’s when several of those movies were filmed here.
As a sensitive little kid, I was enthralled with all the mysteries and legends woven into Silver Springs.. Where does all this water come from, I wondered—and is the pit really bottomless? I yearned to find out where the darkness beneath the turquoise waters might lead me. At eight, everything unseen or forbidden was a fairyland of possibilities, a place where the imagination could gift you with stories that, otherwise, would go untold.
It was a seminal moment for me, one that later would draw me to scuba diving soon after I moved to Florida as a young adult to live. As a diver and journalist, I went on to travel to some of the most remote sites on earth to report on the local marine environment—the distant islands of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the crater-like “blue holes” in the ocean bottom just north of Cuba, the isolated coastal reefs and cliffs off Panama, Nicaragua and Venezuela, and the sink hole-like cenotes of the Dominican Republic. All those explorations were revealing, rich with adventure and crammed with subsurface images I could barely imagine. My diving partners were marine biologists or archaeologists, all working on one project or another that would help the world learn more about their respective science. The places I visited were unknown to most tourists, sites where the unexpected became almost commonplace for me.
But, it wasn’t until Eric Hutcheson—a friend who was an accomplished cave explorer and cartographer invited me to join him in a mapping expedition to Silver Springs—that I truly became giddy with anticipation. As we geared up for the dive, I realized I was no longer the veteran diver-writer with a portfolio of rare and offbeat experiences underwater, a guy who would try almost anything, at least once. Instead, I was an eight-year-old again. And I was finally getting to go into inside the “bottomless pit.”
Despite the fact that thousands of tourists still float in glass bottom boats every week atop Silver Springs, the caves that feed one of the world’s most powerful upwellings are what divers call a “virgin system”—largely unexplored or mapped. Sport divers have long been barred from the spring since they would interfere with the theatrical business of spin making. And, over the years, various owners felt the danger of even a professional dive expedition created a liability that might outweigh any benefits. A dead or injured diver was problematic on so many levels—not the least of which is that it would be difficult for the World Famous Glass Bottom Boat guides to explain in an entertaining sort of way.
And, there was this: “This is probably the largest cave-spring on land in the U.S.,” a geologist who had studied the hydrology of the spring told me when I was researching the springs before the dive. “But it’s incredibly difficult to explore since most of the original cave has collapsed, and there’s a diversion maze right beyond the entrance.” A “diversion maze” means the soft limestone has dissolved and buckled over time, creating labyrinthic zig-zag like routes into the rock that are both difficult and dangerous for most divers to pass beyond.
My friend Eric had earned a stellar reputation as an artistic maker of underwater cave maps. With (the late) explorer and cinematographer Wes Skiles from High Springs, Hutcheson had dived and mapped Nooch Nah Chinh, the extensive underwater system of caves linked by cenotes in Mexico’s Yucatan, as well as a number of Florida spring-cave systems.
Earlier, I had accompanied Skiles and Hutcheson on a survey of Silver Glen Springs in northern Florida. With just Hutcheson, I dove into a chimney-like cave in the side of a remote limestone island in the Bahamas near Man o’ War Cay. When Eric approached the managers of Silver Springs with the concept of mapping the main cave, they saw the promotional possibilities, and agreed.
Eric would chart at least some of the conduits inside Mammoth for the very first time, and when possible, collect small endemic cave-dwelling life forms for taxonomic study. As with other isolated caves, Silver was likely to harbor crayfish and shrimp-like animals that lived nowhere else on earth. Artifacts recovered from the cave could be displayed at the attraction, and later, included in a more complete exhibit at the state’s Silver River Museum.
Eric sometimes brought along specialists, like cave-diving biologist Tom Morris, to more carefully evaluate the science of the springs system, and to help identify some of the rare cave-dwelling invertabrates.
From a more theatrical angle, tour guides could also point the dive team out to the passengers on the boats, weaving the divers into the myths of spring, just as they did for Tarzan and Sea Hunt, the “Bridal Chamber” and the “Spring of Fire”.
Silver Springs, after all, is the archetypical Florida theme park, one built around a spectacular natural geographic feature in a time when Florida had little else to sell. By the 1870’s, steamboats traveled up the Ocklawaha River and then onto the seven-mile-long spring run known as the “Silver River” to the headsprings here. A luxury four-story 200 room hotel awaited them, making Silver Springs and its river a mandatory stop for anyone wanting to experience the exotic jungle mysteries of this off-the-grid peninsula.
By the late 1870’s, some enterprising soul figured out a way to put a slab of heavy glass in the bottom of a large dugout canoe; by the 1890’s, the first commercial glass bottom boat was developed, and guests begin to get their very first look at the magical subsurface world under them. The terrestrial Florida that had been all green and entangled with jungle-like moss and vines could now be enlarged. Other promoters followed the lead, and some springs around the state became portals into a mystical underworld.
For others, a vista of glass wasn’t even needed—most springs could be sold to tourists as health-restoring spas, providing tonics for any problem the northern “invalid” may have—from dandruff to consumption. It was not a totally foreign tradition: Native Americans had regarded springs as spiritual and life-giving for thousands of years. The extended heritage of our springs was rich, dramatically embroidered with both hope and hype.
Today, we assemble our gear, lights and line that cave divers carry atop a temporary floating platform at the shore atop Mammoth. From somewhere nearby the amplified voice of a tour guide from a glass bottom boat drifts over to us. “What is under the water, you will be able to see clearly,” he proclaims, as if he is as hypnotist putting his charges into a trance. And in a way, he is.
As we gear up, other tourists gather along the railing above and pepper us with questions, as if we are audio-animatronic devices made to look like scuba divers. How deep is it in there, and what do you see, and, is it really bottomless? Eric fields most of the questions good naturedly and, thankfully, we soon enter the water, sinking under the clear surface of Mammoth Springs, down to where the only sound is our exhaust bubbles.
At the edge of the natural spring pool above us, I see a seven-foot alligator slide down into the water from his log on the shore, and then— spooked by our exhalations— quickly swim away, swaying its giant prehistoric tail side-to-side as it goes. I notice the gator is far more graceful underwater than gators ever are on land.
I settle on the 30 foot bottom outside the cave mouth, and wait for the others. The water is clear, but not as transparent as I remember it as a boy, shards of stringy algae now swirling about us from problems with nutrients in the uplands that recharge these springs. I push against my mask to clear the pressure in my ears, and then ascend a few feet above the wide grin of a cave mouth— which seems to be blowing out water with the force of a very large fire hose.
Hutcheson had earlier advised me of this, suggesting the best way to enter is from the top of the vent rather than the bottom. As I force my way in, I am against the cave ceiling, just above the concentrated force of the outflow. With my mask right next to it, I notice the ceiling seems to be made from thousands of fossilized sand dollars, left from when all of Florida was once covered by the sea.
Once inside, the narrow mouth-grin opens into an expansive cavern and the constricted, powerful flow has a chance to spread out. It ‘s not unlike how the energy of a swift stream dissipates when it meets a wider river or bay in the lighted world above.
From deeper in the cave, I see flickers of Hutcheson’s light in the darkness and move towards it. As I do, I fin over the boulder-strewn floor and see remnants of large prehistoric animal bones. They are mineralized black, gargantuan in size. Long before the Europeans ever arrived, the few springs that were then flowing were favorite sites for Paleo-Indians who stalked mastodons and giant sloth and bear over 12,000 years ago.
With the outsized bone yard below me, I am literally treading a fine line between myth and reality, part of me thinking this is an old stage set, part of me knowing it is real. Taken wholly, it is an eight-year-old boy’s fairy tale come to life.
The cavern is massive, and boulders that have collapsed from its ceiling over time have created small cave-like alcoves amidst the rubble of bone and rock on the floor. I squeeze inside one of the dark openings. Down in here, I hold my light with one hand, and use the edge of the palm of the other to gently fan across the sand, as I have seen archaeologists do to find artifacts. When I stop fanning to allow the tiny vortex of sand to drift away, my light beam reveals a four-inch-long spear point cared from chert. Hidden here for centuries in the rock and sand, it looks as if it was carved just yesterday.
I gingerly turn and pull my way out of the little cave, and poke around some more on the bottom, exploring other rocky dens. I see more paleo-artifacts, and finally, spot a tiny albino arthropod, a shrimp-like crustacean, flipping about in the crack of eternal darkness. I remove a small specimen collection bag from my dive vest and carefully coax the little animal into it.
Since the science of cave animals is so new, there’s a good chance the little shrimp may be endemic, found nowhere else on earth. At the Smithsonian Institution, scientist Horton Hobbs once specialized in classifying such animals for years; his last name appears at the tail end of many Latin taxonomic descriptions of cave-dwelling life forms. (Later the little shrimp I captured will travel to that venerable institution, and will go through the complex naming process that separates the known animals from the unknown.)
From the far side of the cavern, I watch as Hutcheson removes his tank from his back and pushes it ahead of him into an even tighter “restriction” until he disappears in a cloud of silt and churning water. The conduit he has entered will take him farther back under the land above, following a route that—if he were the size of a tiny shrimp in my baggy—might lead him miles through soft limestone fissures below the distant uplands where fresh rain fall seeps down into the springshed itself.
I poke about some more on the bottom, following the edges of the cavern as far as I can. Under another boulder pile, I see large wooden timbers, charred black from a fire long ago. There is no way of telling for sure, but I know that the old hotel that once hugged the edge of Mammoth Springs burned back around the turn of the last century. Famous tourists had stayed here, since that is what they did when they came to Florida over a century ago.
Poet Sidney Lanier once rode the steamship “Marion” to Silver Springs, and I wonder if this wood—as black as any fossilized tibia or femur—might once have sheltered him inside the hotel. If it did, would it have absorbed an unwritten lyric of the poet’s sensibility, a fragment that drifted up from a forgotten dream ?
Minutes later, when Hutcheson returns from the narrow tunnel, he carries a clam fossil the size of a breadbasket. I fin over to see it and marvel at its heft, of how clearly defined the striations of each rib still is on the surface of its shells, a bivalve forever welded shut by time. Later, after we finish the dive, he will tell me there are scores of such clams along the base of one wall, a bed of giant seabottom mollusks long extinct.
Mapping of the sort that is being done here helps scientists better understand the limitations of our Floridan Aquifer. The cave does stretch for miles into the limestone under the rolling north Florida landscape, veining out into tiny crevices and fissures, sometimes opening back up into gigantic cathedral-sized rooms. But it’s not truly “bottomless”, nor is its water supply endless. It’s a hard lesson we are now learning throughout Florida as the magnitude of our major springs declines, and our potable water supply ebbs away. It is a lesson the extinct seabottom clams learned long ago.
It is time for the dive to end, and so I fin up and over to the cave mouth and let its energy literally blow me out onto the bottom of the spring basin. The force of the upwelling tumbles me, almost sideways, and just as I am regaining my composure, a load of tourist families in a glassbottom boat moves silently overhead.
Despite the algae, the water is still transparent enough that I can look up through my mask and make eye contact with a little boy sitting in the boat, intently looking down at me. His eyes are big, and he seems entranced, pushing his face closer to the glass than the rest.
It is a true Florida out-of-body moment, where the transect that connects us seems to shift there, for just a split second, and I am now the little boy in the boat, looking down at the bottomless pit and at the mysterious man in the mysterious suit who has emerged from it. And all the years in between disappear as if they’ve never been.
Can there be any difference between me, the bass and gators, the old Sea Hunt set, the imported monkeys, the bottomless spring? Another myth, a sacred story, in a little boy’s imagination has been created. I don’t know where it will lead him, long after I’m physically gone from this spring, this earth.
Still, it gives me great joy to know that, in some way, I have entered the sacrosanct dreams of a child, an inviolable place. If he is careful, he might also store this moment away for a lifetime, just as the cave has stored its own relics from so long ago.
From behind my regulator, I smile broadly, watching the boat putter slowly away until all I can see now are the swirls in the water it has left behind. The other divers emerge and as they ascend, they motion me to join them. I shake my head as if waking from a long and heartfelt dream, and drift slowly upwards, towards the light.