Florida's Eternal Springs

photos by Doug Stamm

In the 1700’s, the king of England sought out a naturalist to travel the southeastern colonies of America, a naturalist willing to undertake the hazards of the primitive land and capable of describing in detail its myriad array of natural resources. The king found William Bartram.

So Bartram, over a period of years, with paper and pen and eyes tuned to the subtle nuances of his beloved surrounding, traversed his colonial homeland for the king. The result was a classic collection of writings, "THE TRAVELS OF WILLIAM BARTRAM," that has rested for two centuries in near obscurity.

My first introduction to "TRAVELS" was while researching a book on the springs of Florida. Bartram describes, among many other things of interest, the same springs included in my work, springs of 200 years past not unlike those today.

Impressed by the accuracy of his insight and moved by his reverence, I attempted during many underwater excursions through these springs to see them with a prophetic clarity equal to that of Bartram, and for a brief period, even attempted to imitate his depth of descriptive prose. But I only found myself seemingly blind in the water, and later, my words shallow in comparison.

I am left to wonder, then, what verse would flow from Bartram’s pen if he could join me for a moment to weave in weightless communion throughout these crystalline waters. All that remains, at lest for me, is to all his perspective to jump the gap of two centuries, to take it below the mirrored surfaces of the springs he describes, and then, perhaps together, we can begin to reveal the rare and wondrous nature of these springs that captivated us both; springs Bartram could not know are the deepest and largest in the world. As surely as I envy the art of Bartram, I have reconciled, so surely would he envy mine.

The following excerpts are from Bartram’s work. The photographs are my own.

…Behold, for instance, a vast circular expanse before you, the waters of which are so extremely clear as to be absolutely diaphanous or transparent as the ether; …at the same instant innumerable bands of fish are seen, some clothed in the most brilliant colours; the voracious crocodile (alligator) stretched along at full length, as the great trunk of a tree in size, the devouring garfish, inimical trout (bass), and all the varieties of gilded painted bream, the barbed catfish, dreaded stingray, skate and flounder, spotted bass sheepshead and ominous drum; all in their separate bands and communities, with free and unsuspicious intercourse performing their evolution: there are no signs of enmity, no attempt to devour each other; the different bands seem peaceably and complaisantly to move a little aside, as it were to make room for others to pass by.

But behold yet something far more admirable, see whole armies descending into an abyss, into the mouth of the bubbling fountain, they disappear! Are they gone forever? Is it real? I raise my eyes with terror and astonishment – look down again to the fountain with anxiety, then behold them as it were emerging from the blue ether of another world, apparently at a vast distance, at their first appearance, no bigger than flies or minnows, now gradually enlarging, their brilliant colors begin to paint the fluid.

Now they come forward rapidly, and instantly emerge, with the elastic expanding column of crystalline waters, into the circular basin or funnel, see now how gently they rise, some upright, others obliquely, or seem to lay as it were on their sides, suffering themselves to be gently lifted or born up, by the expanding fluid towards the surface, sailing or floating like butterflies in the cerulean ether: then again they as gently descend, diverge and move off, then they rally, form again and rejoin their kindred tribes.

This amazing and delightful scene, though real, appears at first but as a piece of excellent painting; there seems no medium, you imagine the picture to be within a few inches of your eyes, and that you may without the least difficulty touch any one of the fish, or put your finger upon the crocodile’s eye, when it really is twenty or thirty feet underwater.

And although this paradise of fish may seem to exhibit a just representation of the peaceable and happy state of nature which existed before the fall, yet in reality it is a mere representation; for the nature of the fish is the same as if they were in Lake George of the river; but here the water or element in which they live and move, is so perfectly clear and transparent, it places them all on an equality with regard to their ability to injure or escape from one another; (as all river fish or prey, or such as feed upon each other, as well as the unwieldy crocodile, take their prey by surprise; secreting themselves under covert or in ambush, until an opportunity offers, when they rush suddenly upon them): but here is no covert, no ambush, here the trout freely passes by the very nose of the alligator and laughs in his face, and the bream by the trout.

…In an about the Great Sink, are to be seen incredible numbers of crocodiles, some of which are an enormous size, and view the passenger with incredible impudence and avidity; and at this time they are so abundant, that, if permitted by the, I could walk over any part of the bason and the river upon their heads, which slowly float and turn about like knotty chunks or logs of wood, except when they pounce or shoot forward to bead off their associated, pressing too close to each other, or taking up fish, which continually crowd in upon them from the river and creeks, draining from the savanna, especially the great trout, mudfish, catfish and the various species of bream; where they have a superfluous plenty and variety of those that are every way preferable; besides the gar being like themselves, a warlike voracious creature, they seem to be in league or confederacy together,, to enslave and devour the numerous defenseless tribes.

It is astonishing and incredible, perhaps, I may say, to relate what unspeakable number of fish repair to this fatal fountain or receptacle, during the latter summer season and autumn, when the powerful sunbeams have evaporated to the water off the savanna where those who are so fortunate as to effect as retreat into the conductor, and escape the devouring jaws of the fearful alligator and armed gar, descent into the earth, through the wells and cavities or cast perforations of the rocks, and from thence are conducted and carried away, by secret subterranean conduits and gloomy vaults, to other distant lakes and rivers and it does not appear improbably, but that in some future day this vast savanna or lake of waters, in the winter season will be discovered to be in a great measure filled with its finny inhabitants, who are strangers or adventurers, from other lakes, ponds and rivers, by subterraneous rivulets and communications to this rocky, dark door or outlet, whence they ascend to its surface, to be seen ascending and descending through the rocks but towards the autumn, when the waters have almost left the plains, they then crowd to the sink in such multitudes, as at times to be seen pressing on in great banks into the bason, being sink, are suddenly fallen upon by another army of the same devouring enemy, lying in wait for them thousands are driven on shore , where they perish and rot in banks, which was evident at the time I was there…

… The rains, in impetuous showers, as liberally descent upon the parched surface of the ground but the earth being so hollow and porous, these superabundant water cannot constitute a rivulet or brook, to continue any distance on its surface, before they are arrested in their course and swallowed up, thence descending, are filtered through the sand and other strata of earth…and admit these waters to pass on by gradual but constant percolation which collecting and associating, augment and from little rils, brooks and even subterraneous rivers, which wander in darkness beneath the surface of the earth, by innumerable doublings, windings and secret labyrinths, no doubt in some places forming vast reservoirs and subterranean lakes, inhabited by multitudes of fish and aquatic animals…

..Having supplied ourselves with ammunition and provision, we set off in the cool of the morning, and descended pleasantly, riding on the crystal flood, which flows down with and easy gentle, yet active, current, rolling over its silvery bed; how abundantly are the waters replenished with inhabitants! The stream almost as transparent as the air we breath there is nothing done in secret except on the its green flowery verges, where nature at the hand of the Supreme Creator, hat spread a mantle, as a covering and retreat at suitable and convenient times, but by no means a secure refuge from the voracious enemy and pursuer.

.. About noon we approached the admirable Manatee Springs, three or four miles down the river. This charming nympheum is the product of primitive nature, not to be imitated much less equaled by the united effort of human power and ingenuity! As we approach it by water, the mind of the enquiring traveler is previously entertained and gradually let on to greater discovery… It is amazing and almost incredible, what troops and bands of fish, and other watery inhabitants are not in sight, all peaceable, and in what variety of hay colours and forms, continually ascending and descending , roving and figuring amongst one another, yet every tribe associating separately; we now ascended the crystal stream, the current swift, we entered the grand fountain, the woodland hills, near half encircling it; the ebullition is astonishing, and continual, though its greatest force or fury intermits, regularly, for the space of thirty seconds of time, the waters appear of a lucid sea green colour , in some measure owing to the reflections of the leaves above; the ebullition is perpendicular upwards, from a vast bason, throwing up small particles of pieces of white shells, which subside with the waters, at the moment of intermission, gently settling down round about the orifice, from a vast funnel; at those moments, when the waters rush upwards, the surface of the bason immediately over the the orifice is greatly swollen or raised a considerable height; and then it is impossible to keep the boat or any other floating vessel over the fountain, but the ebullition quickly subsides, yet before the surface becomes quite even, the fountain vomits up the waters again, and so on perpetually; the bason is generally circular, about fifty yards over, and the perpetual stream from it into the river is twelve or fifteen yards wide, and ten or twelve feed in depth the bason and stream continually peopled with prodigious number and variety of fish and other animals; as the alligator and the manatee or sea cow, in the winter season; part of a skeleton of one, which the Indians had killed last winter, lay upon the banks of the spring; the grinding teeth were about and inch in diameter; the ribs eighteen inches in length, and two inches and a half of thickness, bending with a gentle curve, this bone is esteemed equal to ivory; the flesh of this creature is counted wholesome and pleasant food, the Indians call them by a name which signifies the big beaver. My companion, who was a trader in Talahosochte last winter, saw three of them at one time in this spring; they feed chiefly on aquatic grass and weeds.

… The hills and groves environing this admirable fountain, affording amusing subjects of enquiry, occasioned my stay here a great part of the day, and towards evening we returned to the town.

  1. In the headsprings pool of the Crystal River near the Gulf of Mexico, marine and freshwater fishes mix in a myriad variety where the spring's domain of fresh water meets the sea. As schools of gray snapper pass by groups of bluegills and sunfish. "It is amazing and almost incredible, what troops and bands of fish, and other watery inhabitants are now in sight, all peaceable, and in what variety of hay colours and forms..."
  2. A Spotted sunfish, one of the most abundant inhabitants of springs, is one of may "Varieties of gilded, painted bream"
  3. Discovered at night in Alexander Springs, an alligator poses as if a dinosaur as it stands on the bottom of its spring, it's nose just above the water's surface, which from underwater reflects its image like a mirror.
  4. Near the alligator, in the spring's large basin, cruises a longnose har, "a warlike voracious creature, they seem to be in league of confederacy together, to enslave and devour the numerous defenseless tribes".
  5. Travelers enter manatee Springs in the same fashion as Bartram 200 years ago and find "This charming nypheum is the product of primitive nature, not to be imitated much less equaled by the united effort of human power and ingenuity!"
  6. As canoers travel over the spring waters of Florida, they find "the stream almost as transparent as the air we breath..."
  7. A manatee cow and calf swim the spring basin headwaters of the Crystal River, a wintering area for hundreds of manatees, "The Indians call them by a a name which signifies the big beaver"

From an underwater observatory at Homosassa Springs State Park, visitors can view a great variety of spring inhabitants, including manatees. "..you imagine the picture to be within a few inches of your eyes, and that you may without the least difficulty touch any one of the fish, or put your finger upon the crocodile's eye, when it really is twenty of thirty feet under water.

Publisher's note: To see what's where topographic maps help. While you can buy individual "quads" for limited areas you might consider the new, and up to date CD-ROMs that might cover 200 or more USGS quads. While Florida doesn't have much vertical, it's most useful to be able to see swamps, bottom, woods and agricultural access. These CD-Rom maps let you examine large areas in great detail to turn up new spots to fish, and they allow you to then print only the areas you want. Even better they work with GPS systems as well.