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Waters Journey

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I was born under the sign of the fishes in the “Sunshine City” of St. Petersburg, Florida. I learned to swim about the same time I learned to walk. My mother took me across busy 49th Street to the pool of Mrs. Neal where all the neighborhood children went to master the basic skills of swimming. The Neal family had an up close and personal connection to water. Mr. Neal was a plumbing contractor who repaired the problems adults encountered with water. Mrs. Neal was a swimming instructor who averted the problems children might encounter with water. There was lots and lots of water and we were surrounded by all types - salt water, creek water, lake water, river water.

Miz MerMullet Maid

A few years later I eagerly anticipated our travels to the waters of Weeki Wachee Springs where I fell in love with the live mermaids. The way they appeared to swim so effortlessly suspended like magic inside a wonderful crystalline water globe captured my Pisces heart. The sun shining rays of light that reached down from the surface to the watery depths, graceful tails sparkling, exposed skin shining luminescent. I watched in rapture. Back at home, the favorite color of my mother decorated our living space in gentle shades of turquoise and aquamarine. I imagined myself happily immersed underwater in these colors of liquid blues and greens. In the quiet darkness of the night, I secretly dreamt I too was a dazzling mermaid.


I had a very limited concept in my youth of just where all this water came from. I understood how the noisy pump right outside the kitchen window brought up from the ground the pungent sulfur water that ran freely from our faucets. A few miles away when the sprinklers watered the grounds at the cemetery, I easily recognized the smell and sensed that somehow these waters must be connected. In the education of my adulthood, I understand this basic connection. But recently, I came to have a deeper appreciation of this interconnectedness after taking a fascinating tour led by retired biologist, Jim Stevenson, called “Waters Journey: Following the Water to Wakulla Springs.”

A group of us gathered early one Saturday morning near the outskirts of Tallahassee to trace the overland journey of water as it flows southward to the first magnitude, world famous Wakulla Spring. Our car caravan began the journey at its northernmost point when we crossed over and dropped off the ancient coastline called the Cody Scarp. A shifting shoreline has defined different shapes of our state over the centuries, but this long ago coastal line is easily seen today because of a noticeable descending shift. We are at 150 feet above sea level and have just left behind the higher elevation and clay soil of the Red Hills Region to enter the porous limestone ground of the Woodville Karst Plain as it slopes steadily downward to the Gulf of Mexico.

Directly underneath the sandy soil and “Swiss cheese” rock of this limestone landscape courses the Floridan Aquifer, one of the world’s most productive aquifers and the primary source of drinking water for several major cities, municipalities and rural communities in Florida. The 450 square mile karst plain is covered with sinkholes, springs, swallets – where a sink swallows a stream, and a massive underground system of channels that link together the longest and deepest known freshwater cave system in the world. The upper aquifer here is very shallow and exposed in many places. The mysteries of this underground water world become a bit less bewildering when we sense how extremely vulnerable and ecologically sensitive the area must be. What we put on or into the ground like chemicals and fertilizers or wastewater and septic tank discharge essentially goes directly into this aquifer and affects the water on which we rely to live. This springshed needs every bit of the protection we can muster.

Our route takes us first through the “hot spot” known as the Lakes Region, an area important to the water passage. We will stop at several manmade and natural lakes including a vanishing lake that is sucked down into the aquifer when the water table falls in times of drought to disappear almost entirely overnight. At the water reclamation facility, we learn about the sprayfield and how excessive nutrient levels affect the health of our water, and can lead to overgrowth of invasive aquatic plants like hydrilla that changes a delicate ecosystem. When treated water leaves here, we know by dye trace studies, that it takes 56 days to travel the 10 mile distance to the “end of the pipe” at Wakulla Springs.

At Ames Sink in southern Leon County, the surface water which has travelled along the visible pathway slough from Lake Munson, now turns and goes beneath the earth where it will gain speed along an underground highway until it reemerges as outflow at Wakulla Springs. It is along this route the water travels through an incredible limestone labyrinth of interconnecting underground caves. We follow the overland path, stopping to peek into the karst windows where scientific divers have entered the aquifer in their successful quest to link the related cave systems. At Indian Springs, we stand above cave rooms with impressive names like “Hall of the Green Giants,” “Grand Canyon,” and “Great Pyramid.” Reportedly there are caves large enough to hold a professional football game or land a jet plane. These caves and tunnels are full of life where creatures make their home such as freshwater eels, crustaceans, and some rare species that exist only within the Woodville Karst Plain.

Wakulla Springs cave ventNearly 4 hours after we first set out, we complete our marvelous journey standing on the dive tower overlooking the main basin of Wakulla Spring. Water from the aquifer flows at a rate of 400,000 per minute from the large spring vent 185 feet below us. The alligators, Purple Gallinules, snapping turtles, otters, and all the other fauna and flora I can see from here rely on the spring flow and the quality of this water for their survival. This place is truly a special natural treasure that needs our protection. I watch mesmerized by a trio of manatees floating effortlessly over the basin and I can clearly see my dream. Those gentle manatee mermaids swimming so serenely below me deserve healthy, clean, crystalline water – and so do I.


Last Updated ( Sunday, 04 March 2012 13:57 )