Years ago, when a friend first suggested that I get dive certified, I laughed. What a terrible idea, I thought. Life is scary enough without adding in danger, like trying to breathe underwater. But last year I reluctantly agreed to give it a try, and now I’m an aspiring dive enthusiast, filling my drawers with T-shirts from dive shops and wondering if it’s too soon to get a tattoo of a dive flag. (It is.) On free weekends, I’m always scheming to fit in dive trips.
Recently, I suggested to a dive buddy that we take a drive to the middle of the state where a duo of inland springs outside of Ocala offers a unique scuba experience. They’re challenging dives for novice divers, I’d heard, but the underwater terrain was meant to be remarkable. Plus, more dive shirts.
So on an overcast afternoon following a 4-hour drive north, we turned off the main highway to bump down a dirt road to our dive resort. How strange, I thought, to drive inland for scuba. I associate dive trips with heading toward the sea, the land flattening out and the foliage giving over to salt marsh and mangroves, not the rolling hills and live oaks of central Florida.
The next morning we were the first divers at Devil’s Den, a sunken spring-fed cavern, and we suited up and headed down the steep stairs that descended into the dim interior. A round hole in the limestone roof let light in, but the cavern still had an eerie subterranean feel. And the water, a steady 72 degrees year-round, filled the space with a chilly humidity. I shivered in my wetsuit.
At the base of the stairs we reached the submerged platform and waded to its edge. I slipped on my fins and brought my mask down over my face.
“Ready?” my buddy asked.
I nodded, but a tight nervousness had formed in my belly.
My friend let the air out of his buoyancy vest and disappeared below the surface. I followed, taking in an unsteady breath as the cold water closed over my head. We dropped down to 20 feet, took a few moments to orient ourselves, and then dropped down another 10 feet. We were the only divers in the spring, and the water was achingly cold. Curious bluegills swam close to our masks, investigating, before swimming disinterestedly away. The sides of the cavern sloped away to dark depths and submerged rocks leaned against each other, creating a lunar terrain. I felt like an astronaut as I kicked slowly through the water, seemingly weightless, surrounded on all sides by a cosmic blue.
My buddy was a more experienced diver than I am, and he swam with confidence through the narrow passageways between boulders. At one, he stopped and signaled me over with his flashlight. I shook my head. He signaled again, more emphatically, and I swam down beside him. When he pointed at the swim-through, I gave him a dubious look. But when he nodded reassuringly, I decided to give it a try. Life can be scary on its own, true, but a life without adventure is even scarier. So I propelled myself forward and maneuvered between the rocks, barely squeezing through with my tank. I could feel the weight of all that water pressing down and a claustrophobic uneasiness rising up, but before either could take hold I was through the rocks and out the other side. My friend high-fived me underwater.
We finished circumnavigating the spring, then took a safety stop before breaking the surface of the water, grinning and exhilarated. Pale light shone down through the opening in the cavern’s roof and reflected off the blue basin. An electric thrill shot through me as I thought of what lay below us and the fact that, for a brief moment of time, I’d journeyed to the deep.
Related: The Best Florida Day Trips
If you go …
Devil’s Den Springs Resort is open to the public year-round. Entry to the spring costs $38 per day for divers and $15 per day for snorkelers ($20 on weekends and holidays). Dive and snorkel gear is available for rent. 5390 NE 180th Ave., Williston, (352) 528-3344, devilsden.com
Blue Grotto Dive Resort, another popular inland dive spot, is just down the road from Devil’s Den. Its cavern drops to a maximum depth of 100 feet and has a limestone overhang that can be intimidating to novice divers. The waters silt up as the day progresses, but the depths are breathtaking, especially for first-time cavern divers. 3852 NE 172nd Court, Williston, (352) 528-5770, divebluegrotto.com
Both Devil’s Den and Blue Grotto offer places to stay. Blue Grotto has rooms and cabins for rent, and Devil’s Den offers rooms and on-site camping. Both complexes have grills and picnic tables.