Photo essay: The underworld

Florida’s springs make the state a magical place

The iridescent blue of the spring boil at Ginnie Springs is striking. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

I am standing on the banks of Ginnie Springs, peering down into the spring boil. The water is a beautiful aquamarine color unique to Florida’s springs. It is like opening up the back of a fine Swiss watch.

The peninsula floats on a layer of limestone, dolomite, clay, sand and gravel filled with fresh water — the huge Floridan Aquifer that underlies the state.

A group of underwater cave divers from Germany is preparing to descend into the aquifer at this privately owned park in Gilchrist County. The members of the group are memorizing a map of the cave with the help of a local dive instructor and interpreter. They listen to her outline step by watery step their expedition into Florida’s underworld, taking seriously the sign posted by the spring, “Dangerous Cave: Divers have died here.” Humans have a penchant for defying death, but for some of these men, their motives are among the simplest. They are here to see what is there. This outing will be relived and recounted multiple times to others back home.

Florida is a watery place, a peninsula. If you live on the west coast, you can greet the Gulf of Mexico in the morning, drive 150 miles east and by lunchtime be swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. If, like 90% of the population, you live on or near the coast, you may be able to see the surf out your window or hear it on a stormy night. The interior of the state is riddled with wetlands, rivers, lakes, streams, sinkholes and springs.

It is the 700 springs, the most for any area of the same size in the world, that make this place so special. They have always attracted people.

Divers studying a map of underwater caves at Ginnie Spring. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Sometimes I imagine myself traipsing about the woods and happening upon a first magnitude spring. I would rush to let others know about this newfound natural wonder — which is what happened at one of the state’s premier archeological sites, Little Salt Spring in North Port, a third-magnitude spring. Scientists have determined it was first used by Indigenous peoples 12,000 years ago. It served as a burial site. Paleo artifacts and fossils of humans have been recovered from its waters.

William Bartram once gazed into the depths of Blue Spring, which now is a state park. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Centuries later, naturalist William Bartram floated over the waters of Blue Spring, gazing into the depths and feeling the same awe I am experiencing today. His account, in his book Travels, published in 1791, inspired a generation of English poets, including Samuel Coleridge, who in his poem, Kubla Khan, makes the spring boil, the limestone, the spring run and surrounding forested landscape come alive: “And ’mid these dancing rocks at once and ever, It flung up momently the sacred river. Five miles meandering with a mazy motion, Through wood and dale the sacred river ran, Then reached the cavern measureless to man.”

My friend Martina Linehan walks the boardwalk at Poe Spring, one of 75 springs the feed the Santa Fe River. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Hundreds of thousands of visitors throng into Blue Spring State Park yearly to experience the place for themselves. In winter, they delight in the manatees, which over-winter in the 72-degree water.

Troy Springs State Park is tucked away down a dirt road near Branford. It is not high on the list of springs, but it has a quiet charm. No one else was there when I visited late one winter afternoon. Possibly they were over at Ichetucknee Springs State Park, world-famous for tubing on a hot summer day but delightful to paddle on a cool day.

This is the Santa Fe River on a winter day. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

I walked the ramp down to the water and watched gar, an air-breathing fish dating back to the Upper Jurassic Period (157,000,000 years ago), weaving through limestone boulders.

Olsen Sink is a portal into the Floridan Aquifer at Peacock Spring State Park. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Florida’s fragile, ever-changing land is almost an afterthought. At Nokomis Beach, it is smooth entry into the surf; a few days later, it is a step down into the water. This land is a newborn in geological terms. The Everglades are only 5,000 years old; the Blue Ridge Mountains in Pennsylvania, not far from where I grew up, are more than 1 billion years old. But somehow Florida seems more real to me. Perhaps that is because it is so flat, so accessible.

A gar, an ancient air-breathing fish, swims among limestone boulders in a spring. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In south Florida, the Rocklands, a critically imperiled ecosystem, has a thin soil layer over limestone outcrops from the Biscayne Aquifer. It supports pine forests and plants and animals, many of which are rare and endangered.

Huge limestone boulders line the spring boil at Little River Springs in Suwannee County. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Florida naturalist Charles Torrey Simpson, who settled near Miami in the early 1900s, watched with dismay as the city engulfed his “precious rocklands,” which today are museum pieces in Florida’s park system. More than 98% of them have been lost to development. Miami’s Institute for Regional Conservation ( allies with governments, nonprofits and individuals to restore remnants of this magnificent habitat.

Rocklands at Simpson Park is in the heart of Miami. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

You can experience the rocklands at Simpson Park, a tiny oasis amidst Miami’s skyscrapers. “Magic!” Becky Long, my pen pal from Miami would say.

So many contrasts in this Florida of ours. I keep a small piece of Florida limestone in my van, a kind of totem that for me represents this beautiful peninsula.

At Nokomis Beach, a day of rough surf affects the fragile, ever-changing coastline. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Fran Palmeri ( is the author of Florida Lost and Found, which is available on Amazon and in bookstores and libraries. Her new book of essays and photographs, A Bouquet of Days, will be published in the spring.