It’s a tribute to cave divers like the late Wes Skiles that photos of people swimming in the Floridan Aquifer have become common-place. In places like the amazing Blue Path exhibit now showing in the Florida Museum of Natural History, we see pictures of divers swimming through the most serene settings imaginable—suspended in dream worlds of icy-blue water and cream-colored limestone; moving through grand, underwater passages; illuminated by celestial shafts of sunlight. Like modern hieroglyphs, these photos line the great-halls and corridors of our public places with depictions of legendary places and heroes doing heroic deeds. They are morality tales with common themes; water is precious; never take it for granted; do all you can to protect it.
Wes once showed me a photograph of a cave diver drifting in a submerged cave. As cave-diving images go, it was relatively unremarkable. In fact, the only clues that it was taken in a cave at all, were some limestone projections visible in the background. Judging by the diver’s enthusiastic “thumbs-up” and by his excited eyes, visible even through his face mask, it appeared to be a photo of a young man having the experience of a life-time.
Wes was quick to point out that he had not taken this photo; it was a self-portrait, taken by the diver of himself. Wes' emphasis on the fact that the diver was alone was my first clue that all was not right with this happy scene.
Pointing to the limestone in the background, Wes said “I know this place.”
He then pointed to the tanks on the diver’s back, “And those don’t hold enough air to reach that spot in the cave and make it back out. He’s already dead and doesn’t even know it.”
In that instant, with Wes’ guidance, I realized that I was not looking at a photo of a happy diver; I was looking at a man about to experience the last, and most horrifying moments of his life. As I stared at the photo, trying to correlate the tragedy I now knew to be happening with the happy appearance, I realized it was a perfect metaphor. Wes had devoted his life to sounding the alarm that behind the beautiful facade of the springs, a huge tragedy is unfolding.
Knowing that most of us will never dive in caves, he called our attention to the springs—the only part of the aquifer system we’ll ever see. He compared them to the celebrated coal-mine canaries, used by miners to detect dangerously low oxygen levels. The springs are our visible indicators of the aquifers health. And, it doesn't take an expert to see they are sick. Our canaries are gasping.
On a recent tour down Santa Fe River, our small group of paddlers drifted over the fresh-water geyser called Poe Spring, feeling the earth’s pulse gently rock our boats, as we discussed Florida’s aquifer system. I explained that rain water seeps slowly through the limestone to the underground system of channels and pockets; that some water is in the ground for many decades, maybe even centuries, before it works through the system and reappears from a spring; that the aquifer provides the vast majority of Florida’s drinking water.
I then explained to the group that the aquifer is in jeopardy. It's being degraded by over-extraction and pollution from agriculture and home owners who continue to over-fertilize and spray pesticides with reckless disregard. Pointing to the green-tinted water of Poe Springs, I described crystal clear water I knew as a child. I pointed to the barren bottom of the spring pool, where the only signs of life are clumps of brown algae, and describe the eel grasses and other plant species that grew here only a decade ago. Ecologists consider Florida’s springs to be among the most diverse freshwater habitats in the world.
We spent the next few hours paddling down-stream, stopping to admire every spring we passed. I felt like a museum docent leading tourists down vaulted green halls and showing them our amazing collection. I described each piece, gave a little history, and then moved aside to allow everyone a few moments contemplation before moving to the next piece.
There really is power in the knowledge we have gained from people like Wes Skiles. And yet, we’re not acting on it. Our springs are already turning green, and most are already showing the obvious symptoms of too many nitrates in the form of a thick coating of algae on all submerged objects. And yet, there is no sense of alarm. The fact that the canary is dying doesn’t seem enough. I wonder if Wes ever looked out on a room full of legislators and saw only grinning fools in dive-masks giving a hearty thumbs-up.