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Somewhere Under the Rainbow
By Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost staff writer
[Dunnellon, FL–] Drifting at a speed of 1 1/2 knots downstream in west-central Florida’s Rainbow River, I am blown away by the clarity of the water, the shimmering kelly-green eelgrass dotting the bottom and, most of all, by the antics of a cormorant.
Through my dive mask, I watch raptly as the black water bird with the curved yellow beak plunges ten feet deep, churning up the sand and parting the thick grass blades in a hunt for food. To my left, a terrified sunfish darts away unharmed, and a few seconds later, the cormorant returns to the surface empty-beaked.
Two feet apart, we look at each other and the unperturbed hunter makes another dive, still unsuccessful. I drift with him for a good eighth of a mile, but he never spears a fish. Maybe the black shadow of my thick wetsuit is scaring away his prey, and he leaves me behind. But watching him was fun while it lasted.
A cornucopia of wonders awaits just about anyone who snorkels or dives this scenic watercourse. The Rainbow emanates from a second-magnitude spring in the state park that bears its name that, together with numerous smaller springs, generates more than 450 million gallons per day of nearly invisible, 72-degree water. With a maximum depth of 25 feet, it flows for about 5 1/2 miles before joining the larger, tannic-brown Withlacoochee River.
My friend Kyle Stewart and I began our snorkel float about a half-mile downstream from the park– (boats are not permitted in the headspring)– guided by captain Ross Files on a pontoon boat from the dive shop at Plantation on Crystal River. Files kept the boat ahead of us as we drifted, flying a dive flag to warn approaching boaters– of which there were very few.
What fun! We passed fat largemouth bass and colorful bream hovering around numerous tiny spring vents that look like miniature geysers erupting on the sandy bottom.
At the major spring heads, I could feel the warmth of their deep underground sources as I drifted overhead. At one spot, at least a dozen pointy-nosed alligator gar hovered. And we floated over a sunken palm tree that Files said was reputed to have been used by actor Johnny Weissmuller as a diving platform in the “Tarzan” movies of the 1940s.
Just before the take-out site at the K.P. Hole Park boat ramp, we spied a gigantic alligator snapping turtle sitting placidly in the eel grass.
Unlike many spring-fed rivers in this region, no manatees show up in the Rainbow seeking refuge from cold Gulf waters in the winter. That’s because an old lock system in the waterway between the river and Gulf block their access. In four trips here, I’ve seen exactly one alligator and it was very small and swam away in terror.
Winter is the best time to do a drift dive or snorkel because the wildly-popular practice of tubing is prohibited from October through March.
Befitting its jeweled status, the Rainbow is designated a national natural landmark, an aquatic preserve and an outstanding Florida waterway.
Plan to visit now before the springtime crowds arrive.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.
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