March 31, 2014
One of Northwest Florida's best-kept secrets is known to more Georgia and Alabama folks than Floridians. And they aren't talking. It has to do with a jewel of a Panhandle spring, a turquoise pool surrounded by stately cypress trees whose aerial roots stand taller than a man. Below the surface, clear, 68-degree water wells up from a spring cave source over 90 feet deep.
Morrison Springs is just far enough off the beaten path in this sunny pine and cypress country to be special for any diver lucky enough to find and dive the site. The shallow pool reflects the overhead blue sky and if the water is clear and the bottom clean of silt, it resembles a giant sapphire. Unlike some springs with a deep, black hole of a source, this one takes visitors gradually into its shallows from a golden-sand beach. Div-ers gear up from a step-like bulkhead around the beach area, often using easily moved picnic tables as places for gear, then wade out into the cool water to put on their fins and masks.
From there, they angle past the roots of monarch cypress trees toward the main spring pool, where a large wood and steel underwater stage has been placed there just for their convenience. Measuring 12 feet by 28 feet, its steel framework supports it about 18 inches off the bottom. The primary reason for the platform is to keep divers from stirring up the bottom. It is great for classes, where students can practice their skills comfortably. The stage is also a perfect place for divers to fine-tune their buoyancy, check out their diver gear, adjust cameras and lights before easing down into the funnel-shaped throat of the gradually deepening spring.
Just over the lip of this dropoff the trunk of a large tree lying horizontally across the spring provides another good place to pause and look down into the blue maw. To its right, and down the right wall, divers see the opening of a small dead-end cavern at a depth of 40 feet. If you ease in first, this is a fine place for making a photo-silhouette of divers entering behind you. It is also home to many of Morrison's freshwater eels. Most are gray, about an inch in diameter and maybe a foot or two long. They hang out beneath the undercut limestone walls. If you approach quietly and shine your light into these areas, they will be lined up, resting. It's in the evening when they come out to frolic. Night divers have fun playing with them. Some divers take hot dogs down to feed them. You break off the tip and crumble the top with your thumb. While the eels swim around eating the particles, you or your buddy snap their pictures. Al Wickham, one of the owners of the spring, recalls one woman who came back from the 40-foot cavern swearing that she had just dived into a snake pit.
When he assured her they were only harmless freshwater eels, she glared back and him and said, “Yeah, but they wiggle like snakes!”
Wickham also recalled some winter night divers who went down to feed the eels. One of the divers was newly married. When he came back from the dive, Wickham noticed he had a fat lip and asked how he got it, to which he replied:
“One of those eels went for a piece of hot dog and grabbed my lip instead!” the diver grimaced. “Now how's my wife gonna believe I got that hickey from an eel, for crying out loud?”
Some Florida springs are choked with hydrilla, a non-native, invasive weed. Up until 1990 that was a problem at Morrison. The state put in an herbicide to try to kill it. The owners raked and bulldozed. Nothing dented it. Then a levee broke on the upper river system bringing down enough muddy water to raise the level of the pool over 28 feet. When the water fell, the hydrilla had failed to get sunlight for so long that it perished. No longer is it a plague. Hopefully, native grasses will soon return. Beneficial vegetation shelters grass shrimp for the local fish population, and helps keep the water clear by filtering out sediments.
Though Morrison's pool often sees visitations from large schools of mullet, and divers will glimpse furtive black bass hovering among the cypress roots, most anglers find the clear water makes it too hard to deceive the fish they are trying to catch. Those who do try arrive before sunup and after sundown. But most anglers prefer the less clear reaches of the river farther downstream. To protect divers, no boats of any kind are allowed to be launched at Morrison, and no motors are allowed in the pool. However, the fellow who does the tank filling at the spring confided that some early mornings he has seen bass striking green tree frogs that drop into the water and swim toward another nearby tree. It made me wonder what a fly caster might accomplish tossing a lookalike green frog out there some misty morning before sunup. Wickham swears that there is an old, horny-jawed, mossy-back black bass reputed to weigh in the vicinity of 14 pounds that hangs out around the cypress roots to the left of the springs. I quietly cruised that area underwater, peering into some of the more complex rooty lairs but I saw no bigeyed bigmouth bass glaring back at me. Good thing too because going eyeball to eyeball with something that size might make me swallow my mouthpiece.
Divers can explore a maze of caverns.
A year or so ago the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission introduced hybrid bass into this river system and others nearby. Wickham said he never thought much about them until one day he was preparing to dive down to the bottom cavern when he paused at the sunken tree just over the 40-foot cavern and looked around. Near the cavern he saw three nice hybrids. He said they were stacked just to the left of the opening as though waiting for something. It was late afternoon and had he not been quiet and looking directly at the fish, he said he would have missed what happened.
One of the eels slithered out of the cavern, and was struck so quickly by the hybrid that Wickham would have missed it if he'd have blinked. The fish moved off and in a moment another eel appeared and was struck just as quickly by the second hybrid. When Wickham swam on, the third one was still waiting for his supper. Apparently it hasn't taken these fish long to learn where their supper comes from. Old-timers around the springs swear that at certain times schools of hungry striped bass invade this cavern hunting eels. How would you like being on a night dive in there when those big babies came in to tear up the eel population?
Divers planning to investigate either of the caverns head for the deepest one first. The outflow water is powerful enough that I always have a tough time entering while carrying a camera and large strobe in my left hand. I can't explain to myself, let alone to you, how I pull myself through that current with one hand, but I somehow do. The trick is to fight your way through the opening and then crab down the inside of the cavern lip out of the current. Once inside the cavern, you won't feel the current.
The spring source is down and to your left under a log at about ten o'clock from the entrance. Water enters from a bottom crevice. The flow blows fine limestone chips up into the water in about a 3-foot-tall fountain of flakes. Depth here, depending on the level of the pool, is about 93 feet. Wear a hood or you will end up with those limestone particles layered to your scalp. If you are photographing someone near this source, angle your strobe so it doesn't bounce back at you and make your picture look like one of those glass Christmas spheres you shake to make a blizzard. Also, don't disturb the debris cone of limestone chips around the source or the whole room will soon look like that blizzard.
Deep cavern divers may find a few catfish resting on rock ledges here. Some ambient light filters in from the opening, but a good hand light with a backup reserve is highly recommended. There are no side tunnels and no way to get into trouble. Most divers exit from the lower cavern and make their way up to investigate the 40-foot cavern on their left when going up. Last July when I eased in there to see if I could find an eel willing to pose for a photograph, I saw a shy one that looked as big around as my arm and easily as long as it. Size and distance is magnified by a third. He still looked big. But quite camera shy as he folded his long length back under the wall. Up top on the roof of the cavern are silver mirrored pools of air, one of them large enough to stick your head into. You can try for some good mirror images here with your strobe camera.
One of the most enjoyable ways for divers to enjoy Morrison Springs is to snorkel its perimeter. You will see mirror images of cypress roots, tree trunks, knees, fallen branches and other intriguing things that harbor fish or turtles of all kinds. Interestingly, the fish and turtles are so used to seeing divers that they never panic. Patient photographers will get some great shots of bass hanging around some picturesque gnarled roots here.
Divers using a surface-supplied air unit such as a Brownie's Third Lung, made in Fort Lauderdale, get to enjoy both worlds without the encumbrance of scuba gear. Their air comes from a hose attached to their belt. They can dive to 40-foot depths or search the shallow depths for hours on end if they wish. Air from the linking hose is supplied by a small compressor and motor unit floating in its own flotation collar on the surface. It provides two or even three divers with hosed air through demand regulators so that they can enjoy their diving by themselves or with other friends or family members. One tank of fuel will allow two or three divers to dive for hours. Great for a family wanting the thrill of shallow-water diving without the prerequisite certification training required of all scuba divers.
On shore Morrison has covered picnic areas and the air fill station rents tanks and other scuba gear. No camping sites are available at the springs. Such can be found at nearby Vortex Springs north of Highway 90. Nearby Ponce de Leon has three motels and a couple of restaurants. More motels and restaurants are in nearby towns a few miles away. Fishermen will find a public ramp a few miles downriver. Locals can direct you there.