Somewhere Under the Rainbow

February 25, 2016 at 8:37 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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rainbowBy Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost staff writer

scocking@guyharveyoutpost.com

[Dunnellon, FL–]  Drifting at a speed of 1 1/2 knots downstream in west-central Florida’s Rainbow River, I am blown away by the clarity of the water, the shimmering kelly-green eelgrass dotting the bottom and, most of all, by the antics of a cormorant.

Through my dive mask, I watch raptly as the black water bird with the curved yellow beak plunges ten feet deep, churning up the sand and parting the thick grass blades in a hunt for food.  To my left, a terrified sunfish darts away unharmed, and a few seconds later, the cormorant returns to the surface empty-beaked.

Two feet apart, we look at each other and the unperturbed hunter makes another dive, still unsuccessful.  I drift with him for a good eighth of a mile, but he never spears a fish.  Maybe the black shadow of my thick wetsuit is scaring away his prey, and he leaves me behind.  But watching him was fun while it lasted.

A cornucopia of wonders awaits just about anyone who snorkels or dives this scenic watercourse.  The Rainbow emanates from a second-magnitude spring in the state park that bears its name that, together with numerous smaller springs, generates more than 450 million gallons per day of nearly invisible, 72-degree water.  With a maximum depth of 25 feet, it flows for about 5 1/2 miles before joining the larger, tannic-brown Withlacoochee River.

My friend Kyle Stewart and I began our snorkel float about a half-mile downstream from the park– (boats are not permitted in the headspring)– guided by captain Ross Files on a pontoon boat from the dive shop at Plantation on Crystal River. Files kept the boat ahead of us as we drifted, flying a dive flag to warn approaching boaters– of which there were very few.

What fun!  We passed fat largemouth bass and colorful bream hovering around numerous tiny spring vents that look like miniature geysers erupting on the sandy bottom.

At the major spring heads, I could feel the warmth of their deep underground sources as I drifted overhead.  At one spot, at least a dozen pointy-nosed alligator gar hovered.  And we floated over a sunken palm tree that Files said was reputed to have been used by actor Johnny Weissmuller as a diving platform in the “Tarzan” movies of the 1940s.

Just before the take-out site at the K.P. Hole Park boat ramp, we spied a gigantic alligator snapping turtle sitting placidly in the eel grass.

Unlike many spring-fed rivers in this region, no manatees show up in the Rainbow seeking refuge from cold Gulf waters in the winter.  That’s because an old lock system in the waterway between the river and Gulf block their access.  In four trips here, I’ve seen exactly one alligator and it was very small and swam away in terror.

Winter is the best time to do a drift dive or snorkel because the wildly-popular practice of tubing is prohibited from October through March.

Befitting its jeweled status, the Rainbow is designated a national natural landmark, an aquatic preserve and an outstanding Florida waterway.

Plan to visit now before the springtime crowds arrive.

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Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/.  For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling camping, sailing and powerboat racing.  She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit. 

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Share your photos, videos and experiences with Guy Harvey Outpost by hash tagging #OutpostAttitude to all of your social media posts.

 

Spring Into Adventure with Mermaids and Manatees

February 23, 2016 at 2:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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12698307_10154157285116756_9106479937438679828_oBy Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost staff writer

scocking@guyharveyoutpost.com

[Weeki Wachee, FL–] Sitting in a subterranean amphitheater watching through clear glass as young women wearing glittering mermaid tails swim gracefully more than 16 feet deep underwater can almost make you suspend disbelief in the supernatural.

“There’s Ariel!” a little girl in the audience shouts in delight, and nobody in the audience scoffs. Indeed, we all start applauding.

We are watching one of the live daily performances of “The Little Mermaid” at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on central Florida’s west coast.  Here, since 1947, generations of young women (and a few young men) have delighted audiences with their unique stunts and choreography– all executed while taking intermittent breaths off free-flowing air hoses scattered around the spring that serves as their underwater stage.

It takes considerable skill to do this.  Wearing neither buoyancy compensation devices nor dive masks, the mermaids must control their depth by the amount of air they inhale and exhale from the hoses– all while dancing, miming and staging mock combat for the audience watching through the glass.  Often they must deal with surprise intruders in the spring that threaten to upstage them– manatees, turtles, a snook that just won’t leave– and several times– drunken patrons from the adjoining Buccaneer Bay water park.  Unflappable does not begin to describe their demeanor.

The Weeki Wachee mermaid shows were the brainchild of Newt Perry, a champion swimmer, diver and attractions promoter.  In their heydays of the 50s and 60s, they drew large crowds, and fans included the late Elvis Presley and other celebrities.

Attendance suffered after Walt Disney World opened, but the shows still went on, albeit to smaller audiences.  Buccaneer Bay was added in the 1980s, and the attraction also includes an animal show, gift shop, restaurant, riverboat tour, and kayak rental.  It became a state park in 2008.

The spring itself is dazzling.  Bubbling up from deep within the earth’s core, more than 110 million gallons per day of fresh, clear, 72-degree water form a narrow river that flows west from the mermaid theater for about 7 1/2 miles to the Gulf of Mexico near Bayport.

A friend and I paddled a five-mile section of the river, renting from the Kayak Shack.  It was a fun, relaxing, non-strenuous three-hour float from the park to the shop’s headquarters over water so clear it appeared invisible. Surrounded by cypress and shady oak, we glimpsed schools of bass, mullet and bream as well as heron, ibis, turtles and at least five resting manatees. Gorgeous.

Visiting Weeki Wachee is but one of many fun outdoor adventures to be savored around Florida’s Springs Coast.  Visitors should also make it a point to explore nearby Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park where they can see a hippopotamus, a Florida panther, and a black bear as well as other mammals, reptiles and birds –and view fish and manatees in an underwater observatory.  Dr. Guy Harvey and fellow marine artist Wyland painted the colorful mural that decorates the outside wall of the visitor center in 2000.

Bicyclists will enjoy pedaling the Withlacoochee State Trail– a 46-mile-long former railroad track that’s been turned into a multi-use path.  A good place to start is the Inverness trailhead and bike either north or south.

All this activity tends to stimulate an appetite.  Here are several recommendations for après-adventure food and drink in or near Crystal River, FL:

-West 82 Bar and Grill at the Plantation on Crystal River

-Peck’s Old Port Cove Seafood Restaurant

-Vintage on 5th

Here’s to happy trails– paddling, hiking, biking– and to putting a spring in your step.

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Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/.  For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling camping, sailing and powerboat racing.  She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit. 

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Share your photos, videos and experiences with Guy Harvey Outpost by hash tagging #OutpostAttitude to all of your social media posts.

Visit the Manatee Capital of the World

February 2, 2016 at 4:45 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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manatee

 

By Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost staff writer

scocking@guyharveyoutpost.com
[Crystal River, FL–]   Mist rises from the murky green surface of Kings Bay as our group of snorkelers quietly enters the water.  The air temperature this January morning is a chilly 40 degrees, but the waters of Kings Bay–fed by some 70 springs both large and small–are a relatively balmy 72.

We have joined the crew of the dive boat from Plantation on Crystal River to observe Kings Bay’s seasonal visitors– hundreds of endangered manatees weighing up to 2,000 pounds that gather in this warm-water refuge each winter when the adjacent Gulf of Mexico grows too cold.  And we humans are not disappointed.

Floating quietly, wearing a thick wetsuit, mask and snorkel but no fins to stir up the bottom, I can see only about a foot in front of me.  But very soon, a gray/brown whiskered mug with tiny eyes appears inches from my face.  Rather than recoil, I just stay still as a young manatee caresses my mask with its lips.  I suppress a giggle because I don’t want to scare it away.  It hovers there for a few seconds, then swims slowly away using its large paddle-tail for propulsion.

No doubt this scene (or one like it) played out numerous times that morning for scores of other swimmers visiting the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge– the only water body in the world where the public is allowed to interact with an endangered species. For many, it is a life changing experience to share personal space with such a huge, engaging and gentle creature.  Fortunately for us, the animals seemed happy to host us.

The manatee– perhaps Florida’s most charismatic mammal, listed as endangered since 1967–may not hold that status much longer.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recently announced it is considering down-listing the manatee to “threatened” because its numbers are way up; mortality is stable;  and it is no longer in danger of extinction.  The public has until early April to comment on the proposal, but federal officials insist the reclassification will not result in weakened protection for the more than 6,300 manatees that inhabit the waters of the southeastern U.S.

Indeed, safeguards for the beloved sea cow are likely to be stepped up here in the Crystal River Refuge perhaps as early as this month.

One of the manatees’ favorite hangouts within the refuge is a small, breathtakingly-beautiful, clear spring adjacent to Kings Bay called Three Sisters. This 1 1/2-acre haven has been under increasing restrictions since the winter of 2011 when refuge officials began closing it to human visitors on days when manatees crowded in. On days when the spring is open, it is monitored by volunteers in kayaks and on land to prevent swimmers from molesting manatees, which carries stiff fines.  Daily openings and closings are posted on the refuge’s Facebook page.

But soon, there may be no more public access to Three Sisters through the spring run.  Instead, only eight snorkelers at a time –accompanied by a permitted guide– would be allowed to enter the spring from a boardwalk in the city-owned park that surrounds it.

Other long-held regulations in the refuge, such as slow-speed/no wake zones for boats and prohibitions against chasing or harassing manatees will remain intact.  Snorkelers will still be able to visit the animals in much of Kings Bay.

The potential reclassification “doesn’t affect the way we do our job to protect manatees,” said Ivan Vicente, a veteran visitors’ services specialist at the refuge.  “This is the manatee capital of the world.  We can protect manatees as we see fit.”

Prime manatee-viewing season typically lasts through the end of March in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.  For more information, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/crystal_river. For lodging and  snorkel tours, visit www.plantationoncrystalriver.com and to learn more about visitation in Three Sisters, visit www.threesistersspringsvisitor.org.

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Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/.  For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling camping, sailing and powerboat racing.  She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit. 

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Share your photos, videos and experiences with Guy Harvey Outpost by hash tagging #OutpostAttitude to all of your social media posts.

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