When I was around 12, I made up my mind I was going to learn to SCUBA dive. Watching the old Sea Hunt episodes on TV served as the initial inspiration and a steady dose of Jacques Cousteau TV specials in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s served to cement my fascination with the sport. Being raised virtually surrounded by water on the east coast of Florida, I spent a great deal of time outdoors, swimming in pools, the ocean, the rivers and even abandoned limestone quarries that had filled with seepage from the fresh water aquifer that underpins much of the state. By the time I came to live in Ocala, in the north central part of the state, I added fresh water springs to my list of underwater places I simply had to explore.
I was 17 and my younger brother John was 15 when we managed to convince Mom to put us through the basic open water diver’s certification course. We knew SCUBA would come naturally to us. After all, we kids swam and snorkeled like fish; water skied in lakes, paddled canoes and kayaks with aplomb, and operated small gas engine boats with skill and caution. We had little fear of diving from a high fork of a water oak or swinging on dangerously slippery ropes into fast-running currents of the many rivers in central Florida. We were respectful, but not fearful of the alligators, snakes, snapping turtles and people floating in inner tubes that often thickly populated the many bodies of water we explored.
We believed that adding SCUBA diving to our outdoor skills was a given, and were egged on by visits to nearby Silver Springs, where we swam in the crystal clear waters of the main spring. Back in the early 1970s, locals could get onto the grounds of the attraction on a cheap “day swim” ticket. This gave us access to the breezeways between the ice cream shop and the souvenir shops, where framed publicity photos festooned the walls.
We learned that many of the Sea Hunt episodes had been filmed at Silver Springs, as well as Tarzan movies and titles ranging from “The Yearling” to “Rebel Without A Cause”. Over the years the list has grown, from underwater sequences of James Bond films and National Geographic specials, sequences featured in Crocodile Hunter and Discovery Channel and too many commercials and documentaries to count. We just knew it would be SO cool to stay underwater and explore wrecks and caves and dodge sharks.
I gained my basic underwater certification in 1972, from the National Association of Scuba Diving Schools, now defunct. John couldn’t hack the math and never managed to pass the final written exam. No problem, we figured I could always rent gear for him on my card and we could still dive together, which we did on numerous occasions in the 1970s.
I did my open water checkout dive on Molasses Reef off Key Largo in the northern Florida Keys. Then, the reef was wonderfully alive, full of fish and massive brain coral, stag horn and elk horn corals. Captivated by the sensation of floating along, listening to the snaps and crackles of fish and shrimp, I had to constantly remind myself to check my bottom time, air and depth gauges to ensure I didn’t overstay my time or use too much air before returning to the boat.
The basic skills of SCUBA came as natural to me as breathing, and I quickly learned to fine-tune buoyancy by inhaling and exhaling while naturally orienting my body to the current and surge. I felt just like the fish, free in this watery world. I still remember floating just off the sandy bottom between reef heads, gazing upward at the shafts of light arrowing through the shallows, where soft corals waved back and forth in the surge. I had spent weeks studying books on marine species and silently named everything I could see, from southern sting rays and moray eels to Nassau groupers, yellow snappers, soft and hard corals. I learned to look in tiny crevices for snapping shrimp and kept my eye out for nudibranchs, as well as fish-cleaning stations – just like the ones I’d seen on one of those Jacques Cousteau specials!
Captivated, I continued my diving education in the cold springs and rivers in central Florida. Wearing a wet suit and diving in the 72 degree water of the springs wasn’t quite the thrill of diving on a fishy reef, but I learned to appreciate the unique aquatic environments that were close to home, and managed to get myself into a couple of close calls underwater that taught me valuable lessons about just how dangerous diving can be if you don’t keep your eyes peeled and pay close attention to where you are and what’s going on around you.
I found a diving buddy in my best friend’s husband. S was a good teacher, with almost a decade of diving under his belt. I felt safe in his company, even if I doubted my ability to successfully pull his 6 foot 4 inch frame out of a scrape. Thankfully I never had to save his bacon, but he had to come to my rescue on two occasions that still give me the willies today, remembering them.
S introduced me to diving in the rapid current of spring fed rivers. My first experience was on the Silver River, which flows from the headwaters at Silver Springs, running clear and cold until a few winding miles downriver, where it flows into the Ocklawaha River, which is a black water river, stained opaque by the tannin from the trees that line this natural waterway.
We entered the Silver River from a short canal dredged from a public boat ramp. Locals know it as the Boat Basin. We hauled our gear along a muddy, root-filled path beside the canal to where it met the Silver River proper. S warned me that I would sink into the soft bottom at the edge of the river bank, so I carried my flippers and stepped into the water with my mask and regulator firmly in place. Good thing, because I sank up to my butt in that muck, weighed down as I was by the tank and weight belt. I wasn’t strong enough to pull myself out as S had, so he yanked me loose, and I tumbled into the current of the river, rolling on my back to quickly don my flippers, peering through the cloud made by the current washing the mud off my legs. I rolled back over and quickly finned toward the bottom to avoid the prop of any boat that might buzz by.
Technically, we were, um, breaking the law diving this section of the Silver River. S said it was dangerous, the narrow river flowing swiftly and boats zipping overhead. The river wasn’t very deep, maybe 40 feet in spots, but the branches from fallen trees could snare the unwary, and many lures, with rusty, nasty hooks hung down from these obstructions, some strung tightly enough to garrote a diver, some swinging in the current waiting to snatch a body part or equipment. So, yeah I guess this was a crazy idea but we figured if we stayed in the middle of the river, went with the flow, listened for boats and hugged the bottom when they came overhead, we should be fine. The visibility was astounding. I could see across to the either riverbank underwater. Or what I believed to be the banks. It was hard to tell through the forest of tree limbs and branches.
Believe me, the last thing on my mind was fear of ‘gators or snakes. I had my hands full, following the mass of bubbles created by the movement of S’s flippers, keeping my body oriented downstream to a current that kept trying to flip me ass over teakettle, watching for obstructions, and maintaining height over the bottom to avoid the deep eel grass that lay almost flat from the pressure of the current.
The eel grass fascinated me. I knew that large catfish, which the locals called “sucker fish” hung out in the grass. I had seen some as large as 4 feet in length swimming in the head water of Silver Springs. I’m not sure why, but for some reason they creeped me out, far more than the thought of bumping into a ‘gator.
I must have been daydreaming about sucker fish, because the next thing I knew I felt something grabbing the base of my neck, which rapidly stopped my forward motion. The current immediately grabbed my lower body, levering my feet toward the surface from the force of the water. I couldn’t swim up, dive down or, worse, twist around to see what I was hung up on. As I fought off the panic and tried to feel between my shoulders I felt S push my butt toward the bottom and pat me on the shoulder. I was pretty freaked, but knowing he was there helped me to calm down. He jerked at stuff at the base of my neck, while masterfully keeping us together in the pull of the current. I could feel him tugging on the hose of my regulator and felt my hair being pulled out by the roots, which didn’t help the panic. I envisioned being tangled on a tree branch or limbs, and he must have pulled my hair, which was long and tied into a ponytail, out of a snarl.
As I recall, S pulled me gently up-current a few feet to clear what I could now see was the fork of two tree limbs festooned with densely packed branches. A clod of sand and mud kicked up from the bottom mostly obscured the scene, and we didn’t hang around to study the area. Holding my hand, S quickly tugged me along toward the center of the river. My brain was settling down from the panic, and I mulled over how stupid I was, thinking about those damned sucker fish, allowing myself to drift toward the river bank. I remember resolving to pay attention from now on. I had just had a personal lesson on just how hazardous this sport could be.
In the middle of the river S motioned for me to follow him to the surface. I lifted up my mask and removed my regulator to ask what the hell had happened, and he quickly told me to keep my mask on and regulator in my mouth and listen. He was holding onto me while we drifted down-current. No boats were in the area and we were well clear of the riverbanks.
S spoke fast, telling me I’d gotten hung up in a tree and he’d had to cut my hair where it had gotten entangled with branches that had caught the first stage of the regulator. Thank goodness he had a dive knife strapped to his leg. He apologized for chopping my hair, but went on to say we had to get down to the bottom before a boat came by and that he’d stay right beside me and let me know when we were close to the place where we were to get out.
Memory is a funny thing. I can recall a lot of that dive in great detail. I remember shaking from the cold and fear but feeling steadied by S’s calm, reassuring manner. I had no idea where I was, or where we were to get out to walk back to the car. I was completely dependent on S, which was a scary thing, if I think about it.
I remember just wanting the dive to end, and spent the next un-recalled period of time concentrating on staying right next to S, not floating higher, not sinking deeper. I kept sweeping my head left and right to try to see the river banks, but the river was getting wider, which meant the current was slowing down. There were fewer bends in the river now, but the water was also not a clear as earlier, and visibility was dropping rapidly. I guessed we were getting near the spot where the Silver River let into the Ocklawaha River, where S had said we would end the dive.
S motioned me to follow him to the surface. He broke the surface before me and, quickly ducking down again, he pushed my shoulder so I stopped rising. Then he turned his face mask directly to mine and I could see him grin around his regulator mouthpiece and wiggle his eyebrows, almost concealed beneath his wet suit hood. He had some mischief in mind. I was in no mood for games but gave him the OK sign when he motioned for me to wait a second. I floated almost vertical about 4 feet from the surface and watched as he very slowly eased his head out of the water.
S motioned for me to surface and as I popped up next to him, he took the old-fashioned, single-stage regulator mouthpiece from his mouth and let it fall into the water, where it dangled around his neck, bubbles seeping up to the surface. He grinned and said “See down there?” He motioned with his head to the left bank of the river, which was about 80 feet away. Downriver, on a flat section of the bank, a woman was sitting on a bucket, cane-pole fishing. A small boy played in the shallows next to her. Neither of them had seen us yet. S said “Let’s have some fun. Stay next to me, float as low in the water as you can. Keep an eye on them and don’t be surprised when I push you back down fast. OK?”
I was puzzled but nodded. I let air out of my buoyancy compensator to lower myself so that my mouthpiece and chin were underwater and paddled to keep myself vertical, watching the boy and the woman. We quietly drifted downstream to almost directly across from them, but still neither had spotted us, probably because we were so low in the water, with a dark riverbank of trees behind us. Also, it had become cloudy and the wind was ruffling the surface of the river. S had on a black wet suit hood and my dark hair probably didn’t stand out.
Suddenly, S took the mouthpiece out of his mouth and raised it above his head. The regulator let out a loud and sustained HISSSSS, which startled me as it echoed off the trees lining the river. I got a glimpse of the boy’s face as he lifted it, jumped straight up from a crouch and screamed at the top of his lungs “Mommy! Mommy!” while pointing frantically in our direction. The woman was twisted away from us on her bucket, fiddling with fish on a stringer. I saw her start and lift her head, and then the next thing I saw was a froth of bubbles as S shoved me, hard, below the surface. He was looking into my mask. His mouthpiece was back in place and he was laughing so hard that bubbles were pouring out all around his lips. I whooped into my regulator and almost lost my own mouthpiece. What a hoot!
Some minutes later I was still chuckling to myself, even as I was shivering from the cold, when S grabbed my hand, motioned “up” and led us to a broad section of the river bank under the old barge canal bridge that spans the Ocklawaha. I remember us clambering out of the river, laughing our asses off. My teeth were chattering, I was so cold, but I managed to get my flippers, tank and weight belt off. S was howling with glee. “Did you see that? Man, that kid is NEVER gonna be able to convince his momma that he saw a sea serpent or whatever the hell we looked like to him. You just KNOW she didn’t even see us. And that regulator hissing? That was brilliant! Too damn funny!” And so on.
I was freezing and drained from too many adrenaline rushes that day for it all to sink in. The story was much funnier in the retelling to his wife, which we did when we got to their house, toweled off, changed clothes and got some hot coffee in us.
As funny as that part was, the scary getting-stuck-on-a-tree thing gave me pause. Not to mention my mangled pony tail. I remember my mother being horrified when I walked into the house that evening. The first thing out of her mouth was “What happened to your HAIR?” I got into a bit of trouble for diving in the Silver River, which my step-father knew was a seething mass of obstructions. “Hell, I won’t even run my little boat that far down the river to avoid damaging the prop,” he admonished me. So I had to promise to never dive in the Silver River again or any other body of water where it was illegal to dive. I kept that promise. Well, more or less…