This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Ocala/Marion County VCB. All opinions are 100% mine.
Need a Florida Travel tip? This time of the year is notoriously bad for SCUBA diving on the west coast of Florida. The water temperatures are as cold as they are going to get all year and the intermittent cold fronts that push through tend to churn the water into a lime green sludge, reducing visibility to ten feet or less. Since this pattern will quickly give way to the unpredictable weather of spring and early summer, it might be a while before you can get your bubble-blowing fix. Unless, of course, you explore some of Florida’s pristine fresh water dive sites. Central Florida, and Marion County in particular, is home to numerous cold-water springs, rivers and submerged sinkholes that permit SCUBA diving. Learn more about Ocala/Marion County Activities and book Ocala/Marion County Lodging so you can explore!
Marion County is one of the largest counties in the state and because of its unique geological makeup, it contains the highest concentration of Florida’s over 700 known underground-fed springs. If you are not familiar with Florida’s spring diving, there are plenty of advantages you should know about. First is that since most of the springs are fed by underground tributaries, the temperature tends to remain constant somewhere between 70 and 75 degrees regardless of the air temperature. The fresh water also puts less wear and tear on your gear. You won’t have to worry about large apex predators, venomous fish, stinging corals, or hazardous structure for the most part, so there is less danger from dangerous wildlife than their is in the open ocean.
That’s not so say that there isn’t abundant aquatic life in the springs. Large schools of fish, sometimes as equally colorful as their saltwater counterparts, eels and a variety of crayfish make their home in these habitats. Since the springs are fed by a constant flow of fresh water from underground, they tend to stay crystal clear throughout the year with unlimited underwater visibility
The spring heads and their outruns can also be a good place to take inexperienced or novice divers, since these sites are usually self-contained, have little to no current, and most feature depths of just 35 feet or less. It should be noted that some of these dive spots feature underwater caves and caverns that should only be explored with proper diving certifications and training for those conditions. Consult a local dive shop or other experts to find out what skill levels are recommended for the planned site before you go.
If you are ready to check out a cavern dive, Paradise Springs offers one of the best opportunities to do so without the advanced training certifications. The privately-owned spring isn’t technically a spring but what is referred to as a “Karst Window” which is formed when the top of an underground river collapses, creating an opening to the underwater structure from land above.
The opening, which sits approximately 20 below the surface of the water opens up into a much larger primary cavern which goes down another 80 feet. As you descend, you will see fossils, like sand dollars and other prehistoric marine life that are embedded into the limestone walls. Surface light coming into the cavern through the main opening is visible every in the main cavern so there is very little chance to get lost.There are, however, several caves that extend from the main cavern but should not be breached by those without the proper experience and certification. Perhaps the best part of this site is that there is an air fill station and equipment rental available on the premises.
Rainbow Springs, located in the Southwest corner of Marion County is a great place for divers of all skill levels and offer a variety of ways to see the underwater world here. Near the head of the springs is the K-P Hole, a primary launch point for most divers, which is popular for both SCUBA and snorkelers. The deepest point, known as Devil’s Elbow, is only 23 feet. Because of the heavy boat and vessel traffic on the surface, a towable dive flag is required at all times. If you are looking for a slightly longer area to explore, the Rainbow River makes for a popular drift dive. There are several commercial outfitters that can shuttle you upriver to a predetermined spot and allow you to drift back down along the rivers current. Along the way you will see flowing fields of eel grass and several underwater vents which help feed the river.
On the west bank of the junction of the Rainbow and Withlacoochee River, across from the Town of Dunnellon’s public beach, you will find the submerged remains of a Civil War-era paddleboat.
If you want to make a full weekend or longer experience out of your diving adventure, Ocala National Forest, with its numerous natural springs, is one of the most popular spots to do it. There is something for everyone here from the traditional swimming hole activities to advanced cave diving. The ONF offers over a dozen different camping options, too, from full-service cabins to RV sites with utility hookups to primitive sites so you’ll never even have to leave the park. Extended stays of up to two weeks are available.
Alexander Springs is one of the most popular sites since it offers easy access to the spring basin which slopes down to about 25 feet with several small caverns and nooks that extend another 10 to 15 down. The beach area of the springs is a popular recreation area that is accessible for all ages so if you have a big group, there will be something for everyone in your party to enjoy. There is a small fee to enter the water with SCUBA gear and all divers must be at least 12 years of age Located at the head of the Salt Spring Run on Lake George, Salt Springs is a popular dive spot for those who enjoy underwater treasure hunting for artifacts like spearheads and pottery shards that were left behind by the indigenous tribes.
The spring got its name from the slightly saline last of the water from potassium and sodium that is dissolved from the limestone substrate, because of the high volume of boat traffic, diving is not permitted in the springs’ head but is permitted further down the river run outside of the designated swimming area. The millpond located adjacent to boat ramp features a vent that goes down a little over 20 feet.
Although diving with SCUBA gear is not permitted, Juniper Springs and Fern Hammock Spring, also located within the park, offer excellent snorkeling that all ages of the family can enjoy.
If you plan on making Central Florida a vacation or weekend getaway, it may make sense to make Ocala your central destination. Ocala has plenty of affordable hotels, bed & breakfasts and vacation rentals for an extended stay in a part of Florida that has retained its quaint charm through the decades.