Florida is said to have the highest concentration of freshwater springs on Earth. The Florida Wildlife Corridor #Glades2Gulf Expedition is traversing springs country near the Gulf of Mexico and recently explored several of these wonderful windows into the underground aquifer.
Our first plunge was into the head spring of the Chassahowitzka River before following the river’s five-mile journey downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.
In 2013, the Southwest Florida Water Management District led a restoration of the head spring that pumped out truckloads of sediment and sand. Nearly four tons of nitrogen were removed. Though the upper springs are clear, the spring runs and river are still challenged by toxic algae fed by nutrient-laden runoff from development in the spring shed.
A few miles inland, the crystal-clear Rainbow River flows from the head spring in Rainbow River State Park to meet the Withlacoochee River near the town of Dunnellon. As we paddled and swam, the relatively healthy eel grass in the Rainbow River provided a glimpse of what has been lost to algae in the majority of Florida’s springs.
Later this week, the Expedition visited Manatee Springs, in Manatee Springs State Park. This first-magnitude spring produces an average of a hundred million gallons of water daily and helps to provide warmer water for manatees during the cold winter months. There is an accessible cave system where certified cave divers can swim 90 feet down into one hole and then parallel to the ground for more than 400 feet through a cavernous tunnel before exiting into the head spring.
The loss of eel grass is evident at Manatee Springs, where seemingly every surface, including the trunks of cypress trees along the banks, is hanging with sinuous strands of algae that seem to choke out all other botanical life. Experts suggest that reducing pollution and excessive freshwater withdraws within the 400-square mile spring shed could help with restoration.
We also had the privilege of swimming with manatees at Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, where record numbers of manatees have been congregating to seek refuge from the cold winter waters of the Gulf of Mexico. This week, 797 manatees were observed in the region—an increase in 200 manatees from the previous record in 2012.Florida Manatees, mother and calf, rest in the warm waters of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.)
As impressive as these springs are, we’ve got to keep moving if we’re going to complete our trek on schedule. All along, you can keep up to date, learn more, and see more photos at the sites below.
Read All Florida Wildlife Corridor Posts
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
Tampa Bay Times “Springs Journal” by Carlton Ward Jr.
John Moran’s “Springs Eternal” Photo Essay in the Tampa Bay Times
Carlton Ward Photography