Florida's Freshwater Springs Attract Vacationers

Florida is most popular for its beaches and theme parks but it has hundreds of freshwater springs too. In central Florida, no springs may be more prized than those at Ichetucknee Springs State Park.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. If I say Florida and Spring Break, you might be conjuring images of beaches, cocktails, theme parks. Well, some of our reporters have been sending suggestions for more off-the-beaten-path destinations, and NPR's Greg Allen takes us to Florida and the state's freshwater springs.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: There are several hundred springs in Florida. They're places where water from the aquifer bubbles up through the porous limestone found throughout the state. But in central Florida, there may be no springs more prized than those at Ichetucknee Springs State Park.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIRPING)

ALLEN: The springs feed the crystal-clear Ichetucknee River. It's less than an hour by car from Gainesville. The best way to see it, says Jonathan Carr(ph), is on an inflatable tube.

JONATHAN CARR: And being able to go down for like, an hour and a half or a two-hour float, and just relax and kick back and enjoy nature a little bit - it's a good way of spending an afternoon.

ALLEN: Carr is there with his family - his sister, Erin; her boyfriend, Matt Muller; and four visiting French cousins. They're at the dock ready to go in but the thing is, this is water that just emerged from underground. It's cold, uniformly 72 degrees whether winter or summer. This time of year, though, even in central Florida, the air temperature is in the 80s - Carr and Muller say perfect weather for a plunge into the springs.

JONATHAN CARR: This is as good as it gets. If you can't out when it's 80 degrees, I don't know when you can go out. It's such a refreshing sensation to jump in this like crystal clear cool water, it's almost like a rebirthing experience.

ALLEN: As soon as they jump in, the river grabs them, the current is strong, the water is crystal clear. The swimmers immediately see manatees, Florida's large aquatic sea mammals that swim in from their ocean habitat to the springs.

LARS ANDERSON: Florida springs are considered the most diverse fresh water habitats in the world.

ALLEN: Lars Anderson is an author and river guide who often takes groups in canoes and kayaks along the Ichetucknee.

ANDERSON: We have a warm climate, clear water that allows the light that penetrates to the bottom of the spring run and therefore the plants can take root and grow, and then a lot of animals that take advantage of that.

ALLEN: Floating on a tube or paddling a canoe, it's not unusual to see river otters, large wading birds, even beaver on occasion. It's part of a natural Florida experience far removed from the bars and beach mob scenes that draw most spring-breakers to the Sunshine State. But after Memorial Day, Ichetucknee and the other springs draw their own party crowd.

On hot summer days, so many locals and visitors come for the tubing that the park routinely shuts down access to some stretches of the river before noon. Anderson says he's heard kids say it's almost like Disney. For him, that's okay. Florida springs, he says, need all the friends they can get.

ANDERSON: As far as I'm concerned, the more people that discover these springs and fall in love with them, the more people will be concerned about what's going on with them also.

ALLEN: Anderson says in the last several years, he's seen a marked decline at Ichetucknee and other Florida springs. The water level here is a third lower than what it was. And there's another problem - runoff and nutrients from fertilizer has promoted the growth of algae, turning clear springs increasingly murky. Spring swimmer Erin Carr says she saw a big change after being away from the area for just six years.

ERIN CARR: And when we came back, the number of algae blooms in some of the springs and rivers we used to visit were, you know, pretty shocking and that was just within a few year period.

ALLEN: Florida's legislature is considering steps to better protect the endangered springs, but at this point prospects are uncertain. In the meantime, for Carr and her friends it's carpe diem. No matter how hot it is, you can always count on Florida springs to be a refreshing 72 degrees. Greg Allen, NPR News.

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