DUNNELLON -- Diving, paddling or tubing down North Florida’s Rainbow River is a crowded exercise during the hot months of summer. It seems like everyone has the same idea about cooling off in the clear, 73-degree waters. But fall through early spring, especially on weekdays, is prime time to enjoy this natural wonder — especially if you are a South Florida scuba diver.
Water temperatures on reefs and wrecks from the Keys through the Palm Beaches are likely to be about the same as the Rainbow during winter and early spring. And unlike our home waters, the Rainbow is guaranteed to be calm with no big waves. You’ll also have a chance to spot creatures you would never encounter in saltwater. Sometimes exploration is good for the soul.
The Rainbow River flows south from a headspring near Dunnellon that pumps out an average of nearly 500 million gallons of fresh water per day from deep beneath the earth’s crust. Before merging with the brown, tannic Withlacoochee about six miles south, the Rainbow is pocked with numerous smaller springs ranging from gaping rock caves to tiny sand boils that look like miniature geysers. Houses and docks line the right bank as you head downstream; the left bank is mostly undeveloped.
Several dive operators in nearby Crystal River escort scuba divers and snorkelers on drift dives down the Rainbow. My friend Maggie Martorell — an underwater photographer — and I went with divemaster Ross Files from the Plantation on Crystal River.
Files launched a pontoon boat at Marion County’s K.P. Hole Park and travelled about two miles upriver to drop us in the water. He didn’t take us all the way up to the headspring because boats are prohibited there. Along the way, we encountered a couple of kayakers and a man and woman fishing in a small motorboat.
Files said he would shadow us in the boat, displaying a dive flag and keeping a short distance downstream from us so that operators of other watercraft would know to keep clear.
We donned tanks and wetsuits and slipped into the water.
Although most of the run is fairly shallow, some of the spring basins are as deep as 20 feet. With tanks, we were able to drift along between the surface and the bottom, carried by a 2 1/2-3-knot current.
The first things you notice after you drop in are the lush, vibrant-green meadows of eel grass coating much of the bottom. The thick blades undulate with the strong current as if they were blowing in a stiff wind on land.
Interspersed with the meadows are sandy valleys surrounding the limestone spring holes. Some of the larger springs pump water out with so much velocity that it’s difficult to swim toward them. Others are thumb-sized percolations in the sandy bottom. Schools of fish surround them, including sizeable largemouth bass, strange-looking alligator gar, and all sorts of bream. If you put your hand over the small vents, you can feel warmer water boiling out.
Drifting by one of the springs, I noticed many of the schooled fish suddenly scattered. Looking ahead, I saw a black cormorant swimming around, looking here and there for a seafood meal. The sight was a bit disconcerting because, while cormorants are a common sight flying around or sitting on mangroves drying their wings here in South Florida, we rarely encounter them while scuba diving. It was interesting to see the bird up close, engaged in its daily occupation.
Once when I was canoeing the Rainbow in July a few years back, I saw a very small alligator swimming in the river, looking panicked as it hastened to get away from the huge gaggle of tubers. Martorell and I didn’t see any gators during our recent drift dive, and Files said they rarely appear.
However, large turtles — such as snappers and yellow-bellied sliders — are common, Files said. He once conducted a pair of divers who counted 47 turtles in a 2 1/2-mile drift. Martorell said she saw one turtle; I didn’t see any.
It took us more than an hour to drift back down to K.P. Hole Park where we got out of the water — chilled but also thrilled with our brief foray into the alternative universe of fresh water diving.
IF YOU GO
Now is prime time for drift diving in North Florida’s Rainbow River. For more information, visit crystalriverdivers.com or call 352-795-5797.
For accommodations, visit www.plantationinn.com or call 352-795-4211.