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.

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