A Photo Essay by Jennifer Adler

Dark tunnels wind through labyrinths of white limestone. Water flows in these subterranean rivers, seeps through tiny crevices, and saturates holes in the rock that forms the aquifer, the foundation of our watery state. Few people visit underwater caves, but thousands flock to the springs, where the water bubbles up to the surface. In the heavy summer heat, we can dip our toes into Florida’s most powerful water source.

… but to truly connect with our freshwater, it helps to submerge. Here, a girl takes the plunge at Blue Springs Park in Gilchrist County, her jump broken by water’s embrace.

The Floridan Aquifer that feeds the springs also supplies drinking water to 92% of Floridians. It’s unusual for Americans to be able to get this close to their water supply, but in North Florida, the springs are also places to relax and reflect. At Ichetucknee Springs State Park’s Blue Hole, a half mile walk into the woods takes you back in time to a wilder part of Florida.

Underwater, we can connect with the unique creatures that also rely on the springs. They serve as important thermal refuges for manatees – docile, curious creatures such as this one at Fanning Spring that mirrors the equally enthralled snorkeler. By protecting our drinking water, we are protecting them and their homes.

Underwater, we can play and explore, and regain our childlike sense of wonder. Salt Springs is a canyon-esque underwater playground for those of us willing to seek what lies just beneath the surface.

The blue blanket of water overhead can even protect from the rain. A relentless summer deluge can be difficult on land, but underwater, it creates a beautiful, dancing sky and a symphony to your ears.

Or perhaps we can dive a bit deeper, like these divers at Ginnie Springs.

Carrying the air they need to breathe and heading for dark tunnels below, they reveal a hidden world beneath our feet. Thousands of tubers float over this cave at Ginnie Springs, many unaware of what lies just out of sight. This is the aquifer, the often mysterious and inaccessible storehouse of our fast-growing state’s water supply.

A glance up from the bottom of Dogwood Spring reveals friends flying in the sky. Springs are windows into the aquifer, but as our population has soared …

… springs have suffered. Silver Glen Spring in the Ocala National Forest is now algae-laden and overflowing with invasive tilapia.

Waters that were once crystal blue are now tinted green, devoid of life. Intense rays of sun stripe DeLeon Spring, but vegetation is nowhere to be found. We are swimming into uncharted territory …

To change our trajectory, it’s important to see and experience both the beauty and the breakdown. In the springs, we can experience the feeling of flight and see magical colors, like the dark river water that swirls with the clear spring water at the river’s edge. This water is not dirty but tannic, stained by leaves like tea. A personal connection with these incredible places can change our relationship with water. Once we experience and love the springs, we are more likely to protect them.

Together we can understand the threats to springs and care for water so that future generations have the opportunity to swim in these captivating places. These kids repeatedly dive off the dock at Blue Springs Park, screaming for joy, yet blissfully unaware that the springs’ future is uncertain.

About Project Blue Ether

WUFT News is publishing this multi-week series on water by University of Florida students, led by award-winning environmental journalist and author Cynthia Barnett, who is a visiting professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.