History and Conservation of Wakulla Springs

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Man is constantly searching for a way to bolt the door against old age. This was the main reason why Ponce de Leon came to a place in the United States twice – in the hope to find the so-called “fountain of youth.” Somewhere in what is now known as Florida, he found a place where crystal clear water flows from springs.

Early inhabitants dubbed the springs, “strange and mysterious waters,” an accurate name because in some locations spring waters appears somewhat magically from the ground, runs downstream for several yards, and disappears mysteriously below the surface once again.

“This is the place,” De Leon must have told himself. “The water here would make me young forever.” On his second trip, in 1521, he discovered quite the opposite. A battle with the local Indians ensued, and he was hit by a poisoned arrow that cost him his life. He was 61, which was extremely old by the 16th century standards.

Had I not visited the place, I would have never known the story. I am referring to the Wakulla Springs, a pre-ice age sinkhole that is connected to an underground cave. My uncle Carl and aunt Aida had to drive for almost a day from Columbus, Ohio to bring me to Tallahassee, Florida.

Actually, my reason for coming was to see Gregory C. Ira, my friend and former colleague at the Cavite-based International Institute of Rural Reconstruction. We had not seen each other for almost a decade. So, when he learned that I was coming to the United States, he invited me to visit his place.

And it was also Greg – along with his wife, Maria Rosario Magsaysay – who suggested that we should visit Wakulla Springs. “Wakulla Springs is one of largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world,” Joy, Greg’s wife nickname, told us.

The spring flows up and out from an underground river at a rate of over 400,000 gallons per minute. Even at its deepest point of 185 feet, objects are sometimes visible near the bottom. In 1973, the greatest outflow of water ever measured at the spring was at almost 860,000 gallons per minute. That’s over 1.2 billion gallons a day!

Historically, Wakulla Springs has always been a special place. Scientific interest in the spring began in 1850, when Sarah Smith reported seeing the bones of an ancient mastodon on the bottom. Since that time, scientists have identified the remains of at least nine other extinct Ice Age mammals, deposited as far as 1,200 feet back into the underwater cave system that branches from the spring.

Over the years, several cave diving expeditions have explored the caves of Wakulla Springs. Because of the great depth and clarity of the spring’s caves, significant advances in diving research, technology and safety have been made here. In 1989, a professional cave diving expedition into the underwater caverns was filmed for a National Geographic television special. Project dive teams have traveled over a mile into one of the underwater caves.

In 1994, a professional dive team explored the spring cavern to a depth exceeding 300 feet and a distance of 4,300 feet. They found the cavern branches into four conduits, but the source of the spring still remains a mystery.

For trivia fanatics: In February of 1999, 72-year-old Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Professor Henry W. Kendall of Massachusetts Institute of Technology died while diving in the spring. He had been part of a group of volunteers who were mapping the caves.

A vast and partially explored cave system feeds the spring. Underwater or from the air, the basin resembles a giant funnel or water-filled meteor impact. A two-level concrete dive tower is constructed over a ledge above the cave entrance. A roped-off area allows swimmers to jump off the tower and swim down or over to the edge of the ledge, which is about 22 feet deep.

According to our guide, the ledge curves around part of the basin, framing the enormous funnel. The basin below the ledge is 125 feet deep, and it is a total of 285 feet down to the bottom and the entrances to the main conduits that feed the spring.

As the spring water flows over land it forms the equally clear Wakulla River, which flows several miles to the south where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Equally interesting in Wakulla’s history is that of entrepreneur, financier, and railroad magnate Edward Ball, who owned a large tract of land around the springs nearly fifty years ago. A fence was put around Wakulla Springs to keep boaters out of the spring’s area. There was much public protest, and Ball was taken to court under the claim that he couldn’t fence off a navigable waterway. Ball won. Today, the fence is still in place, providing important protection for wildlife along the river.

In 1937, Ball built a Spanish-style lodge and resort. When the owner died in 1981, the state took over the place. In 1986, it was designated as a state park. Its brochure states: “Ball designed and created this 27-room lodge, a most unique retreat, using hand-wrought iron, marble and hand-made ceramic imported tile. Standing today as it did then, changed only for improvements in safety and comfort, the lodge is a glimpse into Florida of the 1930s.”

If you are still at a loss of how Wakulla Springs looks like, then you better rent old movies. Several movies were filmed in the state park. The first film shot in this place was MGM’s Tarzan's Secret Treasure, starring Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane, in 1941. Tarzan and the Leopard Woman was also shot in the area. In 1954, the Creature from the Black Lagoon was partly shot. The movie Airport 77 (headlined by Jack Lemmon) was filmed in 1976.

The spring and river are home to and play host to an abundance of wildlife, including alligators, turtles and birds. Nearly 200 species of birds have been documented in the park, among them limpkins, purple gallinules, herons, egrets, bald eagles, ospreys, and vultures. During winter months, the river attracts thousands of migrating water fowl including American widgeon, hooded merganzer and American coot.

And hey, you can swim near the entrance of the cave, especially during summer months. There are signs, however, warning that alligators are present in the park, and swimmers must stay in roped-off areas. Below the swim area but within the park, alligators are common, from 10-foot bulls sprawled on the banks to one-footers grinning on logs.

Wakulla Springs attracts 200,000 visitors each year. In the 1870s, local residents in the 1870s placed panes of glass into rowboats and gave “glassbottom” boat tours. The three-mile river tour is a forty-minute cruise on the Wakulla River, to see alligators, rare birds, and wildlife up close. In addition, the tour also glides through areas where Tarzan (don’t miss seeing the tree where he leaped to the river!) and Creature from the Black Lagoon were filmed.

When water conditions permit, glassbottom boats drift over the bowl of the Wakulla Spring, providing breathtaking views of mastodon bones, unique limestone formations, and playful schools of freshwater fish. In the shallower water to the side of the basin, the guide calls upon Henry the jumping fish, which swims sideways across a horizontal pole on the bottom. The guide would not explain how they got the fish to do this.

If you love walking, the Wakulla Springs State Park has three different nature trail systems. A three-tiered Nature Walk begins at the southwest corner of the historic lodge. Each trail takes you on a walking tour of a different aspect of the Wakulla Springs forest ecosystem. The three combined paths take you through upland pine forests, cypress wetlands and hardwood hammocks.

On the north side of the park, a scenic multi-use trail follows service roads throughout the 500 hectares north of the Wakulla River. It is open to hikers, bicyclists and equestrian use and crisscrosses the northern portion of the park. The trailhead for this trail is off Rock Road, the northeast boundary of the park.

The Wakulla Springs State Park is open from 8 in the morning until sundown 365 days a year – yes, even during winter season!

How do you get there? From downtown Tallahassee, drive south on South Adams until it becomes Crawfordville Highway (US 319 South). Continue past Capital Circle until the road forks to the left and forms Wakulla Springs Road (State Road 61). Take this left fork. Continue on through portions of the Apalachicola National Forest until you come to State Road 267. Turn left for a few hundred feet and then right into the entrance of Wakulla Springs State Park.