Scuba Diving the Blue Grotto
The color is surreal. A blue fire opens up above me like a precious blue opal stone. From this vantage the blueness looks like it goes on forever. It is light in the center and gradually fades to deeper blue along the outer edges.
I had been looking to go diving in Key Largo but the weather wouldn’t cooperate so I didn’t go. In Crystal River I was researching springs to go see manatees and I happened to find a description of a place called the Blue Grotto. A giant sink hole that is the entry for a labyrinth of caves. I’ve went scuba diving in freshwater or in a cave environment. I decided to try scuba diving in this cave environment in a large blue hole in the middle of rural Florida. I booked a trip with American Dive shop.
We met at the dive shop and then followed our guide for the day out to the site. After taking the highway for about 20 miles, we wove down a few country roads, past farmhouses shaded by Live Oaks and Spanish moss. Then we turned on to a dirt road. We drove down past more houses along Blue Grotto Rd to what looked like a farm. A large sign said The Blue Grotto. We turned in and parked at a small store where we had to check in and sign a waver. Behind the store were covered picnic tables, and the Blue Grotto. There two divers were breaking down their diving equipment at one of the tables.
The Blue Grotto is a sinkhole in someone’s backyard. The house sits to one side. On the other side is a huge wooden platform in the sinkhole. From the platform there is a stairway leading down into the water and beyond that is a ramp down to a dock. You can either do a big step off the dock or walk down the stairs to access the water. We chose the big step.
It had been two years since I last dove. I did review my skills prior to this dive but everything felt awkward as I tried to recall all the checks and procedures. Diving is a lot like rock climbing in that you need to check and double check your equipment because equipment failure could be lethal. However once I was in the water it all came back. A little longer and it started to feel almost second nature again.
I followed my dive guide, Tom. Immediately a school of sun bass started swimming up to us. They were looking for a handout. To these captive fish divers mean food. One hovered near my mask looking at me expectantly. Apparently they sell fish food at the gift shop to feed to the fish and a resident soft shell tortoise named Virgil. Virgil is actually a female turtle and has been living there since the grotto opened to the public. He is known to greet divers and snorkelers and is quite friendly. However, Virgil was not around. My dive guide said that was unusual. I wondered if old age had finally caught up with the old turtle.
We dropped down into the blue water to a metal deck at 33 feet. Above me was the surface of the water with the branches of trees arching overhead beyond the water. Surrounding me were the walls of the grotto. Sunfish swam and caught sunlight filtering into the water from above. Below the hole receded down and to the side into darkness. We descended downward into the wide opening to another white limestone bench in the middle of the smaller cavern. From there I could look upward into a blue fire opal hole radiating blue surrounded by dark walls. That was the photo I saw on the website. The lure.
Below us was another 60 feet down a cavern that went down to another chamber. A guideline led the way. We descended down to 70 feet just before the light receded and darkness transformed the dive from an open water dive to a cave dive in darkness only illuminated by our flashlights. We just peered into the darkness at 70 feet. My comfort level on my first dive wasn’t solid enough to weather the mental resolve I needed to enter a cave underwater. So I settled for swimming along the edges behind standing rocks in the middle. Trying out some overhangs and dark corners before committing to the real thing.
Then we swam up to the top of the middle chamber at 40 feet. On the ceiling were water pockets in recessed areas of rock. They looked like liquid mercury mirrors reflecting what was below. Near the middle of the cave was an air chamber. It was a plastic dome where they pumped in compressed air. We swam upward into the chamber suddenly finding ourselves in breathable air looking out at the water all around us. We talked for a few minutes and then descended down again and then started up to the 33-foot platform. We spent the last minutes of the dive exploring the upper reaches of the grotto and looking for Virgil. He was still nowhere to be found. We did our three-minute stop and then ascended to the stairway and walked up the stairs up and out of the water.
1. Looking up from 40 feet below into the opening of the grotto.
2. My dive partner at approximately 70 feet looking back upward toward the opening.
3. My dive partner at our safety stop 15 feet from the surface. Lots of sun fish swimming around.
It was quite different than anything I’ve ever done before. I have scuba dived the Blue Hole in Belize but it is a different environment as it is a large hole open to the ocean at the top. This was the entry into another landscape of underwater caves and a spring system that is a labyrinth beneath the Florida landscape. Unseen except in places where the limestone opens up and spring water bubbles to the surface.
We came to Florida with the vision of the Everglades and Miami beaches. We left with quite a different experience of Florida landscape.