This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative. Read my latest ramblings on the PADI blog! Want to explore Florida with me? Be sure to nab one of the last few spots to our Wander Women Key Largo: A Sustainability Dive + Yoga Retreat rescheduled for July 15-18, 2021.
Nine days, eight dives, two girls, one campervan — and an adventure of a lifetime. We played with manatees, descended into eerie muck-covered caverns, kayaked out to sinkholes, drifted down crystal clear rivers, and discovered Florida’s truly wild side.
Yet planning the #SunshineStateScuba road trip was a bit like trying to do a night dive with a way-too-weak dive light — it was hard and we often felt like we were fumbling around in the dark. Information on Florida’s freshwater dive sites can be sparse and confusing or hard to interpret (fair enough — local dive shops obviously want to protect their business and local divers want to keep the best sites to themselves!)
Having never been diving in the continental US outside an aquarium dive in Tampa, I had no point of reference whatsoever for which dives I could tackle independently, which required a dive guide, which were appropriate for what level of diver and so on and so forth. I learned so much planning and executing this trip, and so as with other similar true adventures where I find a dearth of planning references online, I did my best to create a comprehensive resource here.
For freshwater and cave diving enthusiasts, Florida is somewhat of a mecca, home to the largest convergence of freshwater springs anywhere on earth. I never thought freshwater diving would hold much interest for me — but after this trip, I’m completely hooked.
Months later, the memory that most lingers from this entire experience is the strong sense of responsibility I felt for my own dive safety and experience — but not in a way I felt intimidated by or under-prepared for. While I’ve logged hundreds of dives around the world, the vast majority of them have been guided boat dives in an ocean. Showing up to springs and rivers where there was no one to checking my certification card, no one telling me the dive plan and no one asking me how much air I had left was an experience that truly made me a better diver. If you’re used to having your hand held in diving, prepare to expand your mind and comfort zone!
I’m glad we went with an experienced instructor for the first three dive sites of our trip. For the final three, we went independently, and while we might have missed a few dive site features — the peace rock at Blue Grotto, the fossils at Devils Den, the Devil’s Ear at Ginnie Springs — it was well worth it for the trade off of getting to really experience diving independence.
When to Go
The water at each of these dive sites is about 72 degrees all year round. That says, the climate above water does change throughout the year. We did this trip in late August, when many would find Florida far too hot and muggy to be enjoyable; as two girls living in the tropics, we weren’t bothered. That said, we were lucky to pretty narrowly miss Hurricane Irma and friends by about a week. Hurricane Season is technically defined as June 1 through November 30, and skittish travelers may wish to avoid that period of time.
Most springs are on private land and so thus some are not open every day. This was a surprise to me! Also, some sites are best avoided on the weekends — more on that later.
This cavern is unique for featuring both a spring and siphon, and for the thick layer of duckweed on the surface, which creates striking light columns as divers’ bubbles cause breaks in the plant cover. Personally, due to the low visibility and the presence of a siphon, I would consider this an advanced dive and would not attempt it for the first time without a dive guide and/or proper training.
To dive here, head to Manatee Springs State Park, in Chiefland, Florida, where you must check in as a diver and show your diving certification card when you enter the park. When you leave again, you sign out to let the rangers know you made it back safely. There is no onsite dive shop or equipment rental or tank fill onsite — you need to arrive fully prepared. Other dive sites in the park include the Manatee Springs themselves, a shallow and popular site for dive training, and Friedman Sink, which requires Full Cave Certification to enter.
The cost to enter is $6 per vehicle and all divers must be registered by 3PM and out of the water and checked out by 5PM.
Read about my dive at Catfish Hotel here!
Hospital Hole is a 120 foot sinkhole in Weeki Wachee, Florida that features a thick layer of hydrogen sulfide that divers can penetrate at 70 feet. Other features include the occasional manatees passing over the top of the sink, and entertaining graffiti left by divers of yore (obviously, please don’t add to it.) Due to the disorienting nature of the hydrogen sulfide, I personally would consider this an advanced dive and would not attempt it for the first time without a dive guide and/or proper training.
To dive here, park at Roger’s Park. The location of the actual hole is available on Google Maps, though there is no land access. Some divers allegedly walk upriver to do this dive, which I was aghast to hear. Rent a kayak, guys! With our own kayaks stuffed with a tank in the front and a tank in the back, we paddled upriver for about ten minutes before reaching the dive site and tying our vessels off to a palm tree. Again, there is no onsite dive shop or equipment rental or tank fills available — you need to arrive ready to rock. I highly recommend using a dive reel here to prevent disorientation.
The fee to park at Roger’s Park is $5 per vehicle and there is a boat ramp there from which to launch kayaks. A private guided dive with Adventure Outfitters costs $150 which includes the necessary kayaks and the park fee. For two divers the cost per person goes down to $125, for three or more it is $100 each.
Read about my dive at Hospital Hole here!
Rainbow River is a popular drift dive site in Dunnellon, Florida. This shallow, high-visibility river is spoiled with freshwater fish and turtles, curious birds, and sand boils bubbling up from the springs below — and is a perfect site for divers of all levels. New divers should take a guide in order to avoid missing the dive’s exit, while those with appropriate experience and comfort level can dive here independently.
To dive here, head to a country park called K.P. Hole. Again, there is no onsite dive shop or equipment rental or tank fill — the closest rental and fill facilities are about thirty minutes away in the town of Crystal River. To get upriver, contact Rainbow River Water Taxi — they run pretty continuously on the weekends but call ahead for weekdays. Don’t bring anything on the boat that isn’t going in the river and tell the super friendly captain how long you want to be in the water for and he’ll drop you upriver accordingly.
You must bring a dive flag or surface marker and I recommend a dive whistle as well. This is an active waterway that gets super shallow at times so don’t dive without them — and also don’t miss the exit! This was the most stressful thought for me and why we hired a guide for our first dive here. If you miss the dock at K.P. Hole, there’s no safe exit that won’t have you trespassing on private land (and walking back to your vehicle) So be very alert for the final third or so of your dive time. Find more dive guidelines here.
The fee to enter K.P. Hole is $5 and the Rainbow River Taxi costs $10. Guided dives cost $38-75 at local dive shops, and are often combined with morning manatee tours in Crystal River that cost $58-65. There is camping available across the river at Rainbow River State Park.
Read about my dive at Rainbow River here!
Blue Grotto is a popular cavern and cave dive site in Williston, Florida. Popular features include a cavern that reaches to 100 feet, an air bell that allows for mid-dive conversation, and a friendly turtle named Virgil. This privately owned dive park has every facility a diver could ask for, from warm showers to nitrox air fills to full gear rental facilities. There’s also an onsite dive guide and an onsite freediving instructor who together teach a full fleet of PADI courses in the heated pool.
Open Water divers should stick to 60 feet, while Advanced Open Water divers and above can take advantage of the entire grotto and descend to the full 100 feet. If you’re a new diver or feel uncomfortable, consider hiring the onsite dive guide, though this is a great, safe dive site in which to test the waters (pun fun!) with diving independently. You will need dive lights if you plan to swim through the back loop of the cavern, which has a permanent guide line in place.
A video briefing is shown upon check-in. Admission to Blue Grotto is $45 a day, while airfills cost $8 and tanks cost $12. Night dives cost $45 plus an additional $25 if diving during the day as well. A full rental set and entrance package is available for $90 per day. You can hire the onsite dive master for an additional $30 per dive for the cavern and $75 for the cave. You can even buy food for Virgil in the dive shop! Find the full price list here. There are also onsite camping, RV, and cabin accommodation options.
Read about my dive at Blue Grotto here!
Devil’s Den, also in Williston, is one of Florida’s most visually arresting dive sites from the surface. You may actually gasp when you enter the den for the first time — I did! Divers love this site for its overgrown catfish, prehistoric fossils, eerie swim-throughs, and the unique sensation of feeling like you’re doing a night dive in the middle of the day.
Shaped like an inverted mushroom and reaching just 54 feet deep, Devil’s Den is suitable for all levels of divers — though new divers may be intimidated by the lack of light and the overhead environments, they can easily stick to the center “ring” of the dive and hang out on the training platforms. There is no cave diving accessible here, though keep in mind though that Devil’s Den does allow snorkelers, so it can get crowded.
An oral briefing is given upon check-in. Devil’s Den mirrors Blue Grotto’s full range of facilities, with gear rental, onsite air fills, hot showers, gear set-up stations and more. Night dives are available. There are also onsite camping, RV, and cabin accommodation options. Diver admission to Devil’s Den is $38 per day, with a full equipment package available for $40 and air fills available for $8. Find a full list of prices here.
Read about my dive at Devil’s Den here!
Ginnie Springs is the jewel in the crown of High Springs, Florida. This privately owned park along the Sante Fe River is a popular camping and tubing site among Sunshine State residents, as well as home to two spectacular spring dive sites and one potential river drift dive.
The Devil’s Spring and Ginnie Spring are both infamous for visibility of over 200ft, described by Jacques Cousteau as “visibility forever.” The Devil’s Spring (find a map here) consists of three small caverns — Little Devil, The Devil’s Ear, and The Devil’s Eye — and leads into one of the most popular cave dives in Florida. Keep your eyes peeled for tiny flounders and snails in the sand. Dive lights are forbidden in the Devil’s Spring to all but certified Cavern or Cave Divers, but divers of all training levels are welcome to enter the caverns as far as daylight will allow.
Downriver, Ginnie Spring is home to a hundred foot wide basin leading into a cavern known as The Ballroom — one of the few overhead environments accessible to recreational divers in Florida. A permanent line leads back to the mouth of the spring, where divers can muscle their way up to a grate to feel the full force of 35 million gallons of water gushing out per day. Bring dive lights to look for catfish lurking in the corners, and enjoy the intricate details of the cavern structure. Another popular feature of this dive is swimming out to where the clear spring waters meet the tanin-rich waters of the Sante Fe River.
While many divers chose to drive between the two springs, we chose the more adventurous option: float between them. Occasionally, the Sante Fe River has up to 40 feet of visibility, at which point drift diving the river becomes popular. As there was not even six inches of visibility on the day of our dive, we inflated our BCDs and floated down on our backs.
The maximum depth of both Devil’s and Ginnie Spring is about fifty feet. Upon check-in, a video briefing is shown, maps are provided, and the staff is incredibly eager to help assist you plan your dive. Ginnie Springs has heated showers, an impressive deli and camping supply store, and an onsite gear rental facility with tank fills, but no onsite training or instructors — they will, however, connect potential clients with local freelancers. Admission is $30 for divers, unless they are cave certified, in which case admission is $22. Tank rentals are $8. Camp sites are plentiful and lush — find more details here.
Read about my dive at Ginnie Springs here!
Sadly, our ride was the weak link in this particular road trip. If you haven’t already, you can find the full disaster story here!
Our trip was broken into two parts: course and road trip.
We started our trip with the PADI Cavern Diver course, for which we started from and returned to Tampa each day. While this perhaps doesn’t make sense from a driving efficiency standpoint, we would not have felt comfortable tackling the two dive sites we visited as part of our course independently. That, in addition to how much fun we had and how much information we absorbed in just three days, made the course worth it ten times over.
Next, we took off on a three night, four day road trip around some of the most famous dive sites north of Tampa. This map shows every major dive and snorkel site we visited mapped out in one logical loop. In reality, we did this. Had we been better organized or been in a bigger time crunch, we could have driven out with all our camping gear to the dive site on the final day of our course to save a bit of driving in and out of Tampa. Our trip was eight nights, though it could be compressed into seven if you didn’t take a full day to prepare between trip halves, like we did.
In total we drove about 13 hours and 720 miles over the course of the week. We did a dry day the first day of our road trip in order to take a little break after our course and to avoid diving on a Saturday, but for those with more stamina I’d simply reverse our route so that you either do some sightseeing or perhaps the manatee snorkel as your final “decompression day” activity before you fly.
We had originally planned to visit Paradise Springs as part of our itinerary on the way back from Ginnie Springs, though had to cut it when we found out the privately-owned dive site is only open Friday-Sunday.
Some of our itinerary was built around logistics of the sites: freediving with manatees in Crystal River is best done in the morning, when the manatees are most active, while scuba diving on a Sunday in the Rainbow River is best done in the afternoon, when the crowds clear out.
Most importantly, we built our trip around avoiding weekends at the sites they are most busy/least tolerable at. From what I’ve gathered and now experienced, it is most crucial to avoid weekends at the following sites, from highest avoidance to meh-shouldn’t-be-so-bad: Devils Den (super popular and very confined), Blue Grotto (super popular), Ginnie Springs (gets ratchet on the weekends), Catfish Hotel (fairly confined but not, to my knowledge, very popular), Rainbow River (drift dive so room for everyone), and Hospital Hole (not super popular and also visibility is bad so you probably won’t notice other divers — ha ha.)
If you’re planning a trip of your own I’d start from what dive sites you feel drawn to and comfortable tackling, adjust to avoid weekends if possible, look for campsites or other accommodation and go from there! Other springs we considered were Paradise Springs, Troy Springs, and Hudson Grotto.
What To Pack
• Your Standard Dive Gear: Most importantly, I highly, highly recommend bringing your own dive gear. The post I’ve linked to outlines my collection, as well as the order I invested in it in.
Don’t have any gear or missing a few pieces? Rent whatever you need from your local dive shop or from one in Tampa or Orlando and return at the end of your trip. It will likely work out to cheaper (there are generally discounts for a weekly rental versus renting per day everywhere you go) and you will save SO much time and hassle in getting fitted at every single dang dive site you go to. Plus, if you visit dive sites like Hospital Hole, Catfish Hotel, or Rainbow River, there are no onsite gear rentals regardless. We brought everything with us but tanks, as there was only a negligible difference between tank rentals and air fills and it was quicker to grab a tank at each dive site — however, had we chosen to dive Rainbow River independently as opposed to with a dive guide, we would have had to bring those too.
• Dive Lights: Always dive with a backup light, even if you’re “only” cavern diving and not penetrating a full cave. According to my Cavern Diver instructor, look for lights with at least 1000 lumens and up and avoid wrist lanyards and bulky pistol grip styles and clip lights to your BCD instead. Ideally, have one broad beam and one narrow beam light. I used a Princeton Tec Genesis as my primary but in the future will relegate it to a backup — I found I craved more lumens on almost every dive.
• Reel: A full dive reel is a must-have at Hospital Hole and Catfish Hotel, and jump reel to tie off from the permanent line would be pretty nice for the ballroom at Ginnie Spring, too.
• Car Outlet: Are you camping? Bring a car charger that plugs into a vehicle’s cigarette lighter to keep your cameras and computers happy and charged. This model, which I’ve taken on several trips now, is noisy but functional and affordable.
• Auxiliary Audio Cable: We lost radio signal — and cell service — several times while driving through rural Florida. Download some tunes to your phone and bring a cord to keep ’em blasting!
• Sleep Mask and Ear Plugs: I’d recommend these to anyone on a camping or road trip, but when you’re waking up each morning to scuba dive, a good night’s slumber is not just a luxury. Being alert and well-rested is a matter of safety — take your sleep seriously.
• Headlamp: I’ll never leave home without one again. When our camper’s electricity didn’t work, we used my one lone headlamp to scrounge together dinner, and try to reset the fuses. It was a lifesaver!
• A Scrubba Washbag: Honestly, you’ll spend most of this trip in a wetsuit. That said, you’ll also probably be on the move quite a bit and might not have time to sit by a washing machine for a full load of laundry. This little hand-washer is perfect for any camping jaunt, especially one where you want to just quickly wash your travel clothes before you get on a plane again at the end of your trip. Click the link to read my full review.
• A dive buddy: At most of these dive sites, a buddy is essential — you literally won’t be allowed in the water without one at Ginnie Springs, Blue Grotto or Devil’s Den, for example. I am so lucky to have an amazing dive buddy like Heather who is willing to take off on endless crazy adventures like this one with me!
If you are flying solo, don’t fret, there are workarounds. At Blue Grotto, you can hire the onsite divemaster as a buddy. At Devil’s Den and perhaps even Ginnie Springs, you’re likely to find a buddy team who will be willing to adopt you, if you flash enough friendly smiles and wait long enough. (I do recommend that you look into a certification like the Self Reliant Diver Course if you’re diving frequently with random buddies!) For the other dive sites in this post, if you’re traveling solo I recommend hiring a local dive shop like Adventure Outfitters in Tampa or Crystal River Watersports in Crystal River guide you.
Note: I received several media comps throughout this trip due to my partnership with PADI. However, I will include those costs regardless, for reference. See the end of this post for a full disclosure.
It’s true, this wasn’t a super budget trip. Still, compared to the price of a liveaboard in the Caribbean or a dive resort in the Read Sea, it felt like a good deal. Plus, we each walked away with a cavern diving certification! The prices listed here are per person, and based on two people sharing expenses.
Transportation: $600 expected, $414 after refund
This was far and away our largest expense of the trip. We ended up paying a ton for the privilege of driving a very large closet around — ah well, you can’t win them all. This total broke down to $247 for the truck rental for five days for our road trip, $69 for a sedan rental for the three days of the course (depending on where you stay Uber may be cheaper), $184 for the camper (all eventually refunded by the fraud department at my credit card company), $38 for gas, $52 on supplies for the camper (a hitch, a set of fans when the AC wouldn’t work, gas canisters, a lighter, etc. — much of which I hope to resell when I return to Florida) and $8 on tolls.
During our course and the final night before our flights out of TPA, we stayed for free at my aunt’s condo in Tampa. We were so lucky for this! But fear not if you aren’t in the same situation — accommodation in the area is very reasonably priced. Just check out this Airbnb Wishlist I created when I wasn’t sure if my aunt’s guestroom would be available or not — and get $40 off your first stay using my coupon code.
As for our road trip, this is another category that got really screwed up by our camper van situation. We planned to camp one night at Chassahowitzka River campground, one night at Blue Grotto, and one night at Ginnie Springs (we spent our first night with the camper parked in my aunt’s condo complex, doing all our prep on “day zero” and getting an early start on “day one.”
These were our intended campsites:
• Chassahowitzka River Campground: We paid $22.20 each for a night of plug-in camping, where unfortunately we weren’t able to take advantage of the power or water hook ups due to our broken camper. Still, the staff here was incredibly kind and helpful and truly went above and beyond to help us in our hopeless situation — as did our fellow campers!
We wished we’d had more time to take advantage of the amenities at this cute, away-from-it-all feeling campground with the Chassahowitzka River running through it. They rent tandem kayaks for $35/30 for a full/half day and SUP boards for 40/35 for a full/half day, with the half day rate starting after 1:30pm. And those are just the two that caught me eye — there’s a watercraft for every heart’s desire, here.
• Blue Grotto Campground: Here we planned to pay $10 each for RV camping for one night, though we ended up staying for two nights, and the owner was kind enough to charge us just the tent camping rate due to our situation — so we paid $15 each for two nights instead. The campgrounds here are quite utilitarian, but with basically zero other options in Williston than to stay here or at Devil’s Den, they are convenient and well-priced.
• Ginnie Springs Campground: Here, we planned to stay our final night of RV camping for $25 each, though in the end we were too afraid to venture away from Williston (where we had access to a cabin to sleep and kitchen to cook) with our dud camper. We were gutted, because this looked like such a cool place to camp! Every kind of rental you could imagine was available for floating down the Santa Fe River, and a crazy well-stocked camp store would have provided supplies for a killer campfire. While the RV camping is pricey, you really get two full days onsite for each night you pay for — you can check in at 8am and don’t have to check out until thirty minutes before sunset the next day.
Need to stay somewhere a little more substantial? There are plenty of cheap motels in Crystal River, and there are cabins for rent at both dive parks in Williston. Need something cheaper? Explore options for free camping — check Free Campsites or Boondocking for ideas.
Food: $38 on groceries and $109 on other meals
For the three days of our cavern diving course, due to time constraints we pretty much grabbed breakfast every morning at Starbucks, had McDonald’s for lunch (in our defense, options are thin along the highways in Central Florida), and then were treated to dinner by my overly generous aunt. We also stocked up on an epic snack bag of nuts, fruit, and more our first day which we noshed on throughout the trip. If you’re planning to take this course, definitely plan ahead for meals if you want to be healthier than we were — we were not anticipating how time-consuming and energy demanding it would be!
For our road trip, Heather is vegetarian so we went with all veg groceries from an organic market in St. Pete (we scrambled eggs for breakfast, made peanut butter and pear jam sandwiches for lunch, and had veggie and bean quesadillas for dinner — yum!) Our amazing new friend Simon in Williston treated us to breakfast at a diner one morning and dinner at a sushi restaurant one night, and we had — wait for it — a Starbucks breakfast our first morning and a Mcdonald’s another. Our $38 grocery haul bought us two dinners, three lunches, two breakfasts plus snacks. We bought plenty of high quality products and produce and had some leftovers that we left behind for my aunt. We definitely planned to cook more, though our camper situation left us eating out significantly more than we had planned. Fast food in Florida is cheap so it wasn’t so much a budgetary bust as a health one!
Our “other meals” broke down to $24 for diving course snacks, $27 for three Starbucks breakfasts, $16 for three McDonald’s meals, $14 for a nice lunch at Karma Juicery and $28 for a fun dinner at The Getaway, both in St. Pete.
Our “decompression day” exploring Old Florida was a cheap one. A mere $13 at Weeki Wachee bought a mermaid show, a river cruise, and admission to a simple waterpark built right on a natural spring. The Sponge Docks were free aside from a $2.50 parking fee, as was Whimzeyland.
Diving and Snorkeling: $633
This was, unsurprisingly, our biggest expense of the trip. We spent $258 on four dives and a manatee tour — including tips — during our road trip, and $375 for the cavern diving course, which included four dives.
Are you a certified diving professional? Look out for discounts! The three privately owned facilities covered here all offer some level of discounts to dive pros like instructors and divemasters. Because Heather is an instructor, we were able to get a deal at Blue Grotto with me registering as her “student” for $27 (as opposed to $45) and Heather diving for free as my instructor! And we weren’t pulling a fast one — they were fully aware that we were fun diving. Devil’s Den allegedly offers the exact same deal.
At Ginnie Springs, when I asked if the same deal was on offer, they seemed stricter on whether or not a course was being taught or not in order for the instructor to be comped. It seems the discount varies somewhat by day and who happens to be working. So if you have a friend who’s a PADI Pro… sounds like you know who to invite on your next dive trip! Just politely ask when you show your cards.
Total: $1,433 (expected) /$1,247 (with credit card refund) for eight nights
Not having to pay for accommodation in Tampa and receiving discounts for being PADI dive pros kept our expenses down, though choosing a very expensive method of transport that then failed and piled more expenses on top shot them back up again. To do this trip on the cheap, rent a standard car and tent camp, cooking your own meals!
Obviously, my biggest regret is everything that happened with our camper. I wish we’d just bought a tent and kept it simple. On a related note, I wish we cooked more.
While staying in Willliston was convenient and we had a blast because Forrest was there to show us around, if I was going to do this trip all over again and aim for the best and most beautiful campsites, I would to stay at Rainbow River State Park our second night and Ginnie Springs our third night.
Of course this is the quintessential road trip woe, but I also would have loved to have built in more time! I particularly craved more time at our campsites (or intended campsites) Chassahowitzka River Campground and Ginnie Springs Campground. I also would have enjoyed signing up for a boat ride at Tarpon Springs, doing a second dive at Blue Grotto, and poking around the cute town of Crystal River a bit more.
But overall? My only regret is I didn’t discover Florida diving sooner!
Okay divers — who’s heading to Florida? And where should I go next?!
Many thanks to PADI for making this post possible and to Heather for the underwater photos in this post. We were comped our dives at Ginnie Springs, Devil’s Den, and Rainbow River as well as our snorkel tour at Crystal River. My course with Adventure Outfitters was provided by PADI. My dive lights were provided by Princeton Tec. Everything else was paid for out of pocket.