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Our Town: High Springs as mecca for eco-tourism: What the springs have to offer

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By Gaby Izarra

Our TownWater runs through our earth like blood – falling down as rain and seeping through the limestone – resurfacing to form crystal waterways that flow through our terrain. A spring is where the aquifer emerges above ground like it’s coming up for air.

At the Ichetucknee Springs in High Springs, Fla., the trees hang low over the water as if they’re listening to every ripple. Turtles bask in the daylight, and egrets flaunt their wingspans. Kayaks and canoes quietly glide through the waterways under the periodic babel of birdcalls.

“This is a magical place,” said expert cave diver and filmmaker environmental advocate Jill Heinerth. There is no place on the planet like this – no abundance of springs and beautiful fresh water like there is in North Florida.”

There are more than 600 springs in Florida, but High Springs has the greatest concentration of natural freshwater springs in the nation, according to Florida’s official tourism agency, Visit Florida. Having once been considered a railroad town, High Springs is now a mecca for eco-tourism related to the springs.

Heinerth visited for her first time more than 20 years ago, driving 24 hours from her hometown, Toronto, to see Ginnie Springs and the Crystal River, and to swim with the manatees. Years later she moved to High Springs and has been there ever since.

Heinerth’s profession as an expert technical cave diver and filmmaker has allowed her to explore the deep caves that sit below the turf in High Springs and all over the world. She has dived deeper into caves than any other woman. Some caves are merely passages while others are “cathedrals of space that you can drive cars or trucks through.” Each cave has its own character, she said.

Cave divers flock from around the globe to visit High Springs’ parks and waterways. It’s a destination for experienced divers, and those who are only learning the trade. Heinerth offers classes in cave diving and rebreather technology, a method of using recycled exhaled gas underwater.

Cave diving is only a slice of the activities that the springs in High Springs offer tourists. Visitors and residents can enjoy swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing and tubing as well.

“These springs are not just a place of natural beauty, but they’re also an incredible economic engine for this area,” Heinerth said.

The 15 state parks that house springs in Florida produce almost $7 million in revenue yearly, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Ginnie Springs, the most popular freshwater diving location in the world, sees about 150,000 visitors every year. Tourists visiting the High Springs area for its waterways spend their cash on lodging at the Cadillac Motel and eating at the Great Outdoors restaurant, for example, giving the town some income.

Aside from recreation, the water provides almost all of Florida’s drinking water, and about 60 percent of its freshwater usage, according to the Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants at the University of Florida.

“Springs are portals to the underwater world that’s carrying our drinking water,” Heinerth said. “We have a great responsibility to protect those.”

Threats to the springs range from illegal dumping to water overuse, and even include the damage that humans cause from the recreational use of state parks, according to the Florida DEP. Ichetucknee has a tuber limit of 750 people – a capacity that can be reached in an hour on a busy day. Foot traffic can be harmful to the vegetation and stirring sediments. The human impact can be felt by the springs, as well as the plant and animal life that surround them.

Also, what we allow to soak into the grass travels through the aquifer and eventually surfaces in our springs. Fertilizers, pesticides and other contaminants threaten the quality of water.

Florida residents and visitors can do their part to help protect the springs by reducing the amount of fertilizer used, disposing of trash properly, lessening water consumption and being cautious of what one affects while using the springs recreationally.

“Future wars will be fought over water, not oil,” Heinerth said.

High Springs is a small town with less than 4,000 residents, but it’s rich with water and buzzing with activity. Its waterways alone provide entertainment, drinking water and beauty.

At 72 degrees year round, steam rises from the crystal waters on a cold morning. Divers ready their gear and immerse themselves below the surface. The hiss of their breathing apparatuses almost seems natural.

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