Road trips always seem to find me entering a weird time-space continuum where every day that goes by just blows my mind. I seem to wake up every morning and say, wait, it’s day three already? How did day four sneak up? I’m supposed to seriously believe this is the last day of our road trip?
Alas, all good things come to an end, and in the case of our #SunshineStateScuba Road Trip, we were at least going out with a bang — a day of diving at the widely-beloved-by-Floridians Ginnie Springs. The water here have been the stuff of legend since Jacques Cousteau visited in 1974 and rated the water clarity, normally measured in meter or feet, as “visibility forever.”
Really, it’s more like 200 feet of visibility, but hey, who wants to rain on a Cousteau parade? Ginnie Springs consists of over 200 acres of land and seven crystal clear, freshwater springs — two of them diveable. While most visit Ginnie to rent a black inner tube and float down the Sante Fe River, many come to scuba dive in both Ginnie Springs and the Devil’s Spring (not to be confused with the Devil’s Den which we dove the day before — apparently there’s a lot of satanic naming of natural wonders going on in Florida), and technically you can drift dive between the two when the river is running clear enough, which it was definitely not during our trip. Like our two dive sites the day before, Ginnie Springs also sits on privately owned land as opposed to being part of a state or county park.
So we’d reached the last day and last dive of our trip, as well as our furthest push North — we were approximately one hour’s drive northwest of Gainesville, and one hour north of Williston. We actually originally considered cutting Ginnie Springs from our route and replacing it with somewhere closer to Tampa — and gosh am I glad that moment of insanity passed.
After an incredibly organized sign in and dive registration process, we watched a dive briefing video and chatted to one of the staff members about our dive plan. This was the most complicated dive we were attempting unguided, and so we’d listened to a lot of advice and studied a lot of maps — now it was time to go. Better overprepared than under! We pulled up our truck to grab our tank rentals, and we were off to The Devil’s Spring.
After the incredibly visibility we had had at Rainbow River I didn’t think it could get any better — and then we descended into the water at Devil’s Spring. This was another level.
The Devil’s Spring System is home to three separate springs: Devil’s Eye, Devil’s Ear and Little Devil — also known as simply The Crack — which together produce nearly 80 million gallons of water daily. You can find a great dive site map here.
The first feature we came across was Little Devil, a a four-foot-wide fracture we found insanely photogenic. At 50 feet long and almost as deep, we took turns descending and looking up at each other, a view that made it seem like the other was diving through the trees.
Moving towards the river, we waved to tiny fish and small snails that call the river home. Our favorite find, however, were the teeny tiny baby flounders that camouflage so well you’d miss them, if they didn’t dart furiously away anytime the water rippled in their direction.
Next, we entered the Devil’s Eye. The Devil’s Eye is a pretty perfectly circular opening that’s 20 feet across and equally deep. Tucked in the corner is the entrance to a small cavern that leads into over 30,000 feet of cave systems, one of the most popular on earth. Allegedly, it’s the most logged cave dive ever!
When we peeked in the cavern we saw two divers here with upwards of five tanks each doing what we assumed was a several hour long decompression stop, so as anxious as we were to explore, we decided to stay out of their way and explore further on another trip. Only certified cavern and cave divers can enter the water at Devil Spring using dive lights; all other divers may enter the cavern and explore only what they can see using available sunlight — this is to prevent anyone from being tempted to go beyond the limits of their training.
Last on our list to explore was the Devil’s Ear, another small cavern around the size of Devil’s Eye. However, to our confusion, we couldn’t find it anywhere! Later, I read that the canyon-like opening sits right on the edge of where Devil Spring joins the Santa Fe River, and the entrance is often covered with a thin layer of the tannin-stained river water. Ah ha! That makes sense — oh well, yet another reason to go back.
And then, we surfaced, inflated our BCDs, and gingerly pushed into the Santa Fe River. Originally, we’d been advised to exit Devil Spring, get back in our truck, drive over to Ginnie Spring, and dive that on the same tank. However, the idea of stripping our gear off and back on again mid-dive didn’t really appeal to us, nor did the thought of getting our rental truck sopping wet.
So when someone else suggested floating between the dive sites, we were up for the adventure. We were very concerned about missing the entrance to Ginnie and floating off into the unknown, but the friendly employee at the tank fill had assured us we’d spot it with ease. “And… gators?” I’d asked, because when you grow up visiting family in Florida, you learn to look for alligators in any body of water up to and including a bath tub. I got the same answer I got when I asked anyone about the presence of gators in the very gator-friendly waters we were diving in around Florida: a smile and a denial, though not a super encouraging one. Frankly, those were the answers I wanted and I didn’t go poking around the deep dark internets until weeks later when I was safe and dry: there, I found YouTube videos and news reports of gators almost everywhere we dove. Including Ginnie Springs.
The Santa Fe River was running dark this particular week and we spooked ourselves multiple times by getting to close to floating branches or simply submerging our hands and seeing how quickly they disappeared in the tannin-thick water. Allegedly, occasionally the summer visibility in river can reach up to 40 feet and beyond, at which point river diving becomes popular.
We both whooped with joy when about a thousand feet after exiting Devils Spring, we saw the entrance to Ginnie Spring ahead on the left of the river. Even on a weekday there were plenty of swimmers and stand up paddlers to spot, as well as a well-marked sign.
Drifting into the gin-like spring waters, we paused to submerge and watch the meeting of the waters from below. This ended up being one of the highlights of the day for me — going from the spring water into the river water until I got spooked and jetting out again was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had underwater.
The contrast was unreal. I’ve seen different color river waters meet on the surface on The Amazon in Peru; that was memorable. This was dream-like.
And then we swam back into Ginnie Spring. While we were the only divers beneath the surface, there were plenty of swimmers and snorkelers and paddlers atop of it. We had very strategically visited Ginnie mid-week due to its reputation as a fairly wild weekend camping destination, and so I can only imagine how crowded it can be when the masses descend.
A deep basin over 100 feet across led us towards the wide open entrance to Ginnie Cavern. Inside sat The Ballroom, one of the few overhead environments accessible to recreational divers in the Florida Springs. Lit by natural daylight and with crystal clear water proving excellent visibility, a wide entrance providing easy access to the surface, only a 50 foot maximum depth, and a sturdy permanent line leading back into the cavern, even Open Water Divers are welcome to come in and poke around. I admit I don’t think I would have felt comfortable diving too far off that line were it not for the Cavern Diver training we’d completed earlier in the week.
Here, divers of all levels are also encouraged to bring dive lights. We followed the permanent line from the entrance of the cavern right down to the mouth of the springs, where we took turns forcing our way up to the grate and latching on to feel the full force of the 35 million gallons of water a day that pass through the opening.
We did poke around in some of the side-caverns, met a few small catfish, and eventually made our way back to the guideline, where we waved goodbye to Ginnie Cavern.
Exiting Ginnie Spring, Heather stripped off her dive gear and started the relatively short walk back to our truck, which we’d hidden the key to nearby. I busied myself taking apart our dive gear, which was, sadly, at the end of its journey with us in Florida. I couldn’t believe we’d just finished our last dive!
Ginnie Springs has an onsite gear rental facility with tank fills but no onsite training or instructors — they will, however, work as a referral service to connect interested students with experienced local freelance instructors in the area. It’s $30 for diving admission unless you’re Cave Certified, in which case it’s $22. Tank rentals are $8. Incredibly well-priced for the plethora of experiences you can have, in my opinion.
Ginnie also has absolutely top-notch facilities from which to gear up for or wind down from a dive — heated showers, picnic sites with grills, a laundromat, volleyball courts, the most well-stocked camping store we saw the whole trip, and a tube run, as well as rental SUP boards, kayaks and canoes. One big cabin supplements a plethora of plug-in and wilderness campsites, some river-front. Our itinerary had called for us to camp here our final night, though our dud of a trailer rental tragically meant we had no choice but to stick back at the Blue Grotto cabins where we knew we’d have access to essentials like… the ability to cook and sleep.
I was gutted, though Heather cheered me with a scenic picnic lunch spot pulled up against one of the river banks that gave us a hint at what a peaceful experience mid-week camping would have been. I am certain that I’ll be back here someday, though — perhaps crashing my girl Angie’s annual family trip. According to her and, oh, say, every other Floridian in the state, things get fairly ratchet on the weekends, so steer clear if possible unless you’re ready to witness a keg-stand or two.
Are you feeling as blue as I am about the recap of this trip winding down? Well we both can fear not, because I have one more trick up my wetsuit sleeve: an advice-packed, route-revealing, budget-spilling guide to a week of diving in Central Florida’s springs. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, I’ll be looking up at the trees, pretending I’m back underwater in the visibility forever of Ginnie Springs…
Any final questions, concerns, or puns left unaddressed about our trip? Share below, and I’ll make sure to include them in my final sign-off!
HURRICANE IRMA UPDATE: Ginnie Springs was hit by heavy flooding post-Hurricane Irma but they are officially open again as of October 11th. Go give them your support!
Many thanks to Ginnie Springs for hosting Heather and I! As always, you receive my honest thoughts, full opinions and bad jokes regardless of who is footing the bill. Also, many thanks to Heather for all the photos I appear in throughout this post.