When most folks think of scuba diving, the first thing that comes to mind is gliding over colorful coral reefs and vast schools of tropical fish, or maybe exploring the decks of a long sunken ship. Many years ago, when I lived in Lake City Florida, I fished the Suwanee River and would occasionally see people diving the many springs that feed the river. I promised myself if I was ever in possession of a dive certification, I would come back and try diving the springs.
25-ish years later, a writer’s conference was drawing me back to the area. Fishing buddy Jim VanPelt and I were headed up for a couple days so I saw my chance. After checking with old friends in the area, I called Scuba Monkey Dive Center, a family run shop catering to open water certified divers, in Alachua. Tim and Tracey Boehnlein opened the full service dive shop 7 years ago and it has become one of the largest in the region offering full gear rentals and sales, certification classes and onsite hydro testing while still maintaining that personal family run feel. After making plans with Tracey over the phone, Jim and I stopped by the shop on Thursday to meet up with Tim and go over the next day’s agenda.
|Scuba Monkey Dive Center|
Scuba Monkey Dive Center is in the heart of spring country and convenient to I75. While checking out the gear, I asked Tim why he chose to open a dive shop in a landlocked town so far away from any coastal diving areas. “I love diving the springs. They are so quiet and peaceful. There is nothing else quite like it” Tim said. We decided to meet up at Troy Springs the next morning for our dive.
|Checking out the latest gear|
Troy Springs State Park is just outside of Branford, about a half hour West of Lake City. We arrived as the park opened and aside from a couple of guys testing out dive gear, we were the only people there. A narrow winding road lead to a small bluff overlooking the springs. Although I have more experience scuba diving than Jim, it was soon apparent that we both needed a little refresher. Tim was patient and informative and soon we were geared up and headed down the path to the entry platform. Troy Spring is a 1st magnitude spring that is over 60 feet deep and has a circular limestone basin over 100 feet in diameter. The cold clear aquifer water runs about 300 feet to the warmer and tannin stained waters of the Suwanee River. The water temperature hovers around 70 degrees, so it took a minute to acclimate.
|Water as clear as an aquarium|
Floating over the center of the spring, I looked down into the green tinted, clear water. The limestone walls formed a steep slope down to the inky blackness below. As we descended I noticed how clean the ledges and floor of the spring was. Other than a log or two, and some natural debris, it looked much like it has for centuries. A few mullet swam by and the occasional turtle would launch across our path from it’s mossy hiding place. The sunlight penetrated the water to illuminate the whole area like a great underwater colosseum. At the bottom of the spring looking up, the surface seemed a mile away. Tim had it right, it was quiet and peaceful.
|Jim ready to dive|
|GoPro still photo by Jim|
|A couple of turtles on the way down|
|That fish was this big!|
Our adventure wasn't quite over. We surfaced and headed over to the spring run. As we floated over exposed limestone bottom passing curious turtles and schools of mullet, something interesting came into view. I quickly recognized the basic frame of a sunken wooden vessel. Turns out this was the river steamboat Madison, owned by James M. Tucker. During the Civil War the Union Navy imposed a blockade of southern ports that gradually eliminated steamboat traffic on coastal rivers. By the fall of 1863, as the fighting got closer to the Suwannee Valley region, Tucker scuttled his ship to prevent it from falling into Union hands. He may have intended to raise his steamboat after the war, but by the time the fighting ended in 1865, scavengers had removed much of the ship's machinery and planking. All that remains today are the ribs and joists.
|The Riverboat Marion|
Back at the truck, Tim, Jim and I talked about the vast numbers of springs in the area. Tim obviously had spent a lot of time learning about and diving the region’s springs. Jim was hooked as well and was discussing a return visit to check out a few other dive spots. As for me, I don't know if I will be back to dive the springs again. It took me 25 years for my 1st time, and I loved it, but there are still so many things left to do. I would encourage anyone who has ever thought about diving one of Florida's beautiful springs to contact Tim and Tracey at www.scubamonkeydivecenter.com .
|More of the Marion|