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Ponce de Leon Springs No Longer Makes Me Think of the Fountain of Youth

Algae-Covered Cypress Roots, Ponce de Leon Springs

Algae-Covered Cypress Roots, Ponce de Leon Springs

On the way back from Pensacola, I decided to stop at Ponce de Leon Springs.  I had brought along my underwater camera and wanted to see just how bad the algae was there, as I had heard it was pretty severe.  I went into the springs, which I wonder if I should have now,  I wanted to take a photograph of the base of the cypress tree, which was covered by all kinds of growth and algae.  To get there, I had to take a few steps on really squishy algae.  It was frightening to think that so much could grow here, so close to the vents.  When I began photographing for The Human Impact on Florida's Aquatic Systems a few years ago, the springs themselves had seemed better.  The algae really started when you got farther away. Yet, here I was right in the middle of the swimming hole.  North Florida has lots of agriculture that uses tons of fertilizers that create nitrogen and phosphate runoff.  This runoff makes its way into the aquifers through the springs and where the karst layer is very thin.  It finds its way into our drinking water.  We are being poisoned.  This is not alarmist. This is what is happening and it is time to put an end to it.

Alien Cypress Trunk Resembling a Cave

Alien Cypress Trunk Resembling a Cave

In some places this growth and algae was oddly beautiful though still disturbing.  When I saw this particular patch with its reflections, I felt like I was looking at some unusual cavern.

Decay in Ponce de Leon Springs

Decay in Ponce de Leon Springs

In other places it appears more melancholy, as if a memento mori of what our springs once were.

Clearer Water Around the Corner

Clearer Water Around the Corner

As I got closer to the last cypress before a vent, I saw that there was clearer water around the corner, but I knew it was much hazier than it once was.  People were happily swimming in this hole and I could not figure out how. Then it dawned on me that this has become the new normal. People forget what it once was like.  Some people are too young to have ever seen crystal clear water.  Some people have moved down from places that haven't had clean water in a long time. When I showed an editor from New York City an algae photograph from Ichetucknee Springs, he said, "The water is blue, isn't it?"  This should not become the new normal.  This should be recognized for the horror that it has been evolving towards for a long time.  Something needs to be done.  That the effects of such pollution could in any way be considered normal is terrifying.

Red Lugwigia, Ponce de Leon Springs

Red Lugwigia, Ponce de Leon Springs

From what I could tell from looking through identification charts, this plant that looks so attractive is actually red lugwigia, an invasive species.  Many invasive species thrive in waters with high nitrogen content.

Ponce De Leon Spring Run

Ponce De Leon Spring Run

The water looked a bit clearer along the spring run, but there was still algae cloaking the roots of trees.

The Banks Along the Spring Run

The Banks Along the Spring Run

This photograph shows both invasive plants, more ludwigia that has not turned red I believe, and more algae.

The Ponce de Leon Spring Run Heading Towards Salt Creek

The Ponce de Leon Spring Run Heading Towards Salt Creek

I walked down away and came upon this vista, with soft light breaking through the trees in the distance.  It was beautiful and peaceful and for a moment I could imagine how special this place was to the Native Americans, who inhabited this areas as early as 8,000 BC.  A 6,000 year-old dugout canoe was discovered here, the earliest ever discovered in North America.  This was sacred land that we have despoiled.

Salt Creek with Tannin

Salt Creek with Tannin

The spring run merges with Salt Creek in the State Park.  The water is darker here from the tannins.  Some people were swimming in it to cool off.  Just because you can't see what is beneath the surface, does not make it any cleaner or safe to be in.  In 1982, the State of Florida acquired this site for a recreation area. The park still advertises it as "a place of healthful outdoor recreation in a beautiful setting."  The setting is still beautiful, but I have my doubts about it being a healthful place.