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Florida Springs Eternal
Mermaids and gators know where to go when the weather turns beastly

By Diane Roberts
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 5, 2009

I am a native Floridian, and it's my considered opinion that the Sunshine State has way too much sunshine. Especially in the summer. It's no accident that air conditioning was invented here. But before we had AC, we had the springs, cold as ice cream and blue as a peacock's belly. A good thing, too -- otherwise the state wouldn't have been settled until 1964.

Florida is the springs capital of the planet. There are at least 700, some in state parks, some hidden in shaded forests, some world-famous, some home to manatees, one peopled by mermaids, many still used by locals as a relief from the hellacious heat.

Their names are mystical or commemorative or just plain odd: Magnesia Spring, Turtle Spring, Springboard Spring, Vortex Blue Spring, Euchee, Gemini, Homosassa, Rainbow and Ponce de Leon. Actually, there are two named for the old conquistador, a fitting tribute since he supposedly came to Florida seeking the Fountain of Youth.

Springs have been a tourist draw for more than a century. In the late 1860s, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" author Harriet Beecher Stowe and a party of fellow New Englanders took a boat tour of Silver Springs in Marion County. The Rev. John Swaim of New Jersey marveled at the iridescent waters, "like flashes of the Aurora Borealis."

Florida's peculiar geology breeds springs. Around 37,000 years ago, when the peninsula emerged from the sea for the last time, the limestone cap underneath the land surface trapped saltwater between its rocks. Over the millennia, hammering rains drove the saltwater down under the fresh water; now the fresh water floats on this Ice Age sea, replenished by groundwater that descends through the limestone filter.

Springs happen when the pressure of the aquifer pushes water up through deep fissures to the surface. The force can be astonishing: Wakulla Springs pumps 400,000 gallons per minute into the Wakulla River. Lu Vickers, a writer who grew up in the Florida Panhandle, describes the "dreamlike quality in those green and blue springs. They bubble to the surface from underground rivers, forming pools so clear and so deep that boaters suffer vertigo, feeling as if they were suspended high in the air."

Sauna season came early this year: It was in the 90s by mid-May. Jumping into some brisk water seemed like the only rational response. Besides, my friend Annabel, visiting from Britain, said she wanted to see the "other Florida," the part that's not condofied, concreted and Mouse-infested. So one morning we headed south from Tallahassee toward the Suwannee River country.

The area between the Gulf of Mexico to the west and the St. Johns River to the east is sparsely populated, a hot, green wilderness that's half land and half water. The Santa Fe, Ichetucknee, Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers are punctuated by unspoiled springs all clear as morning air. A little below Old Town on our way to Fanning Springs we crossed Florida's most famous river. Lest you forget its cultural significance, there's a sign that proclaims "Historic Suwannee River" with the first few bars of the famous Stephen Foster song. Not that Foster ever saw the Suwannee: He was originally writing about the Pee Dee River in South Carolina but found that "Suwannee" scanned better.

Fanning Springs is 72 degrees year-round. To me, that's nice and cold. Annabel disagreed, describing it as merely "coolish." She has been known to paddle about in the North Sea, so "cold" has a different meaning for her. The place was satisfyingly underpopulated. There were a couple of high school kids daring one another on the diving platform, a pair of hikers eating sandwiches and poring over a map of the nearby Nature Coast Trail, and a very superior snowy egret wading in the shadows. Annabel said he looked like Margaret Thatcher. We swam in the aquamarine water, out over the spring boil. It was so clear the bottom looked as if it were just an inch below your toes.

A guy with scuba gear showed up, and the egret took off. If you know what you're doing, you can dive the springs and explore underwater caves. There's a Union gunboat down there, too, sunk by Johnny Reb during the Civil War. We considered staying the night in one of the designer-rustic cabins but decided to push on to the City of Mermaids.

On his voyages of 1492 and 1493, Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids cavorting in the waters of the New World. But the great navigator surely never imagined mermaids in spangled brassieres lip-syncing 20 feet below the surface of a Florida spring.

Shortly after World War II, a former Navy frogman named Newton Perry built an underwater theater into the side of a pretty spring north of Tampa on U.S. Highway 19. Perry had started out in north Florida, working with the strong-lunged young swimmers of Florida State University's Tarpon Club. He developed air hoses that let them stay submerged for extraordinary lengths of time and techniques for performing dry-land activities -- making coffee, dancing, playing the trombone -- on the spring pool floor. Florida girls who'd grown up in the water learned to do "ballet" (as Perry liked to call it) while wearing a constricting lamé tail that zipped up the side. By 1948, Weeki Wachee was one of Florida's premier roadside attractions, drawing tourists and stars alike. Ann Blyth and William Powell filmed "Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid" there. In the '50s, Esther Williams came calling; and Elvis, making a movie nearby, arrived in his Cadillac to flirt with the mermaids.

Annabel and I arrived in time for the late-afternoon show. It was, inevitably, "The Little Mermaid." We sat in dry comfort looking through an immense glass window into the heart of the spring, with its blues and greens and gold spangled by sunlight from above. A castle, a supersize version of the kind you buy for your aquarium, sat on the bottom next to a miniature version of Michelangelo's "David" and a treasure chest overflowing with Mardi Gras pearls. The Little Mermaid herself, an elegantly muscled young woman with dark hair and a fishy appendage that started just below her ribcage and ended in a diaphanous tail, swam and "sang" as she battled a tentacled witch who looked like a Portuguese man o' war.

The audiences aren't as large as they used to be: Disney's animatronic siren song has lured the tourists away. But at the end of the show, 20-odd little girls pressed up to the glass, waving delightedly at the mermaids, who smiled and blew kisses.

Annabel agreed that the "live mermaids," as they used to be billed (as opposed to dead ones?), were wonderful, but she complained that she'd been in Florida for four days without seeing a single alligator. Clearly, something had to be done. Besides, we both figured we could use another dose of spring water.

Twelve miles south of Tallahassee, Wakulla is one of the largest springs in the world: wide, deep and powerful. The local story says that "Wakulla" means "mysterious waters." It's more likely that the name derives from the Timucuan word for "spring," or possibly "Wahkola," a Creek word for loon, loons being plentiful around here. Yet "mysterious waters" is poetically apt. The spring, ringed by centuries-old cypress trees, ranges in color from turquoise to jade to sapphire.

Annabel and I decided we'd do the Jungle Cruise first, then swim.

Wakulla's riverboat trip is about as low-tech as anything involving an engine can be. A sharp-eyed guide escorts you down the Wakulla River as it sweeps out of the spring basin toward the Gulf of Mexico. Eel grass undulated as bream and catfish cruised through the crystalline water. The pace was stately. Anhingas dived for their dinner, then perched on riverside branches with their wings extended, drying their feathers. A lone manatee surfaced for just a second, sticking its broad, mild, cartoon-hippo face up out of the river before going back under. Trying to be an impressive host, I told Annabel I'd touched a manatee once. It felt like naugahyde.

Just then, the guide hollered, "Hen-RY!" as a mullet jumped a foot or more out of the water. Whenever they see a mullet -- any mullet -- jump (which is just one of those things mullet do), the guides refer to him as the famous Henry the Pole-Vaulting Fish.

We chugged past a palm sticking out over the river, the very palm from which Tarzan swung, hollering his head off. Johnny Weissmuller made "Tarzan's Secret Treasure" here in 1941. Tiny turtles lined up on a log while herons, aloof as supermodels, waded among the pickerelweed and cardinal flowers. Osprey glided over the tops of the moss-draped trees. "And on the left side of the boat," said the guide, "is Old Man 'Gator."

Old Man 'Gator and his kinfolk, actually: six or eight reptiles cooling themselves in the mud, their old, cold eyes watching us. Their kind have lived here for thousands of years. In fact, the springs were the final resting place for a whole smorgasbord of ancient critters: giant sloths, truck-size armadillos, a kind of ur-camel and mastodons. In 1930, archaeologists retrieved a nearly complete mastodon skeleton, which now aims its massive tusks at visitors to the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee. You can still see mastodon bones here. As we glided over the spring vent, it was hard to tell whether we were gazing four feet or 400 feet down, whether it was still the 21st century or 30,000 years ago when the blue world of Wakulla was born.

Despite the dozen or so alligators we ended up seeing on the river trip, Annabel and I went for a swim. (It's perfectly safe if you stay within the designated area.) At an average of 69 degrees, the water was even colder than Fanning Springs. But the air was hotter, too, so I was nothing but grateful. Besides, immersion in nippy water is great for working up an appetite.

Wakulla is nowhere near as tamed and built-up as Weeki Wachee; at the same time, it has more amenities than Fanning Springs. The Springs Lodge, built in a "Moorish" style by a millionaire in the 1930s, is now a small hotel. Beams of pecky cypress painted with pink flamingos, snowy egrets and fanciful images of Spanish galleons stretch high over the great hall. Framed posters from the movies filmed here, not just Tarzan epics but "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "Airport '77," hang on the walls. We ate navy bean soup and shrimp in the old-fashioned restaurant and wished we could have also managed the grouper and the quail. There's no fried 'gator on the menu, though: At Wakulla Springs they're kind of sensitive about alligators. Maybe it's because of Old Joe, over there in the corner.

Old Joe was born sometime in the late 18th century, back when Florida was still owned by the Spanish. His life spanned the Seminole Wars, the Civil War and the civil rights movement. One night in August 1966, Old Joe was, as the placard says, "murdered by assailant unknown." State newspapers ran obituaries. The Miami Herald called the alligator a "martyr." The Tallahassee Democrat noted that Old Joe "lived a life of minimum activity"; indeed, many people who saw him sunbathing on his sandbar thought he was stuffed. Well, he wasn't then, but he is now, his 11-foot-2-inch-long body preserved in a huge glass box that proclaims, "This is Old Joe's first and only cage."

"A life of minimum activity," said Annabel. "How else can you survive in this heat?"

Diane Roberts last wrote for Travel about love in Florence and time in Greenwich, England.

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