By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
CRYSTAL RIVER -- Are there any alligators?
I asked that question so many times that day I lost count. I asked it before we climbed into the boat, while we were in the middle of Kings Bay and right after we dropped anchor near the entrance to Three Sisters Spring.
Before I leapt head first into the water, I needed some reassurance that I'd be swimming with the fishes, not sleeping with them.
"You don't have to worry about them," said Times photographer Ron Thompson, who not only took photos but served as my guide.
If anybody knew if we'd run into an alligator, Ron was the guy. He has lived here for several years and is big into the whole underwater scene.
Was he telling the truth? I have no idea, but hearing him say the coast was clear a few hundred times erased some of my fears. Not all of them mind you, but enough to allow me to climb into a wet suit and strap on a mask.
After a 15-minute boat ride, it was time to jump in.
Even at this time of year, the water is a bit cold. But thanks to the wet suit, I barely noticed.
As I lowered myself from the boat, I remembered how odd it is to flop around in fins. It's like learning to walk all over again. I bounced around, my legs crossed and feet tangled before I finally got my bearings. The next step was to pull my mask on and stick the snorkel in my mouth.
Sounds easy enough, but if you're not used to breathing with a snorkel, it can take several minutes to figure things out. Let me suggest you try this equipment on before you get in the water. I wasn't wise enough to do that.
Immediately after placing the snorkel in my mouth, I went under. Big mistake.
Like most people, I spend a good bit of time breathing through my nose. If you do that with a mask on, it takes all of two seconds to run out of air.
I just about gagged, and my heart darn-near stopped.
After moving my head out of the water, I ripped the mask off and gasped for air.
My first thought: Thank goodness nobody was watching. I probably looked like a wounded duck. After composing myself, I grabbed the snorkel, moved it into position and began to breathe.
I bobbed around for a few minutes to get comfortable, then swam toward a narrow passage that leads to the spring. Even in this channel, which has amazing rock sides, the water was unbelievably clear.
Because it's not very deep, you can pretty much stop at any point along the way and stand up. That's not a big deal for Olympic swimmers, but for those of us not born with webbed feet, it's quite comforting.
The view was unreal.
As I moved through the passage, a variety of fish swam on either side of me. Without fins, my swimming is average at best. But with fins, I glided through the water with relative ease, allowing me to keep pace with many of the fish.
I tried to catch a few with my hands but had no luck. (If I get stranded on an island, I could be in trouble.)
After about 50 yards, the channel opens into Three Sisters Spring.
What an incredible sight. I looked to the right and could see for what must have been the length of a football field. I looked to the left and saw the same thing.
The floor was a beautiful white. If you never have been in crystal clear water, you're missing out.
"This place is incredible," I mumbled to myself over and over. Some people say they never get tired of looking out into the ocean. That's kind of how I felt.
I swam to the easternmost part of the spring and did twists and flips in the water. A few tourists, who said they were from out of state, appeared to be equally impressed.
Three swam into a deep part of the spring and marveled at its charm while another member of the group used a life preserver to float on the surface.
I headed toward the other side of the spring, where several teenagers had parked their kayaks and were goofing around in the water. This portion of the spring was the most scenic.
I didn't have a measuring stick, but I'd guess it runs about 20 feet deep. Crabs crawled along the floor, and a large tree that had fallen into the water stretched from one wall of the spring to the other.
As fun as fishing can be, it's like having a blindfold on. You're above water, and the fish are in it. But in the springs, you can watch the fish from the front row. And what's great is they don't seem to mind. Unless, of course, you shoot spears in their direction.
Several times, I felt the tingle of a fish bump into my legs. Don't get me wrong, fish tanks are great. But every time you tap on the glass, the fish freak out.
In their natural environment, sudden movements don't seem to scare them nearly as much. And it actually seemed like they were as curious about me as I was about them.
I'd love to sit here and list the types of fish I saw, but to be honest, I don't know the difference between a speckled perch and Big Mouth Billy Bass, the singing fish.
This wasn't quite as amazing as swimming with the manatees (which I did for the first time last summer), but I'm telling you, fish are very underrated.
And I can assure you I'll have a better appreciation for the little guys the next time I squirt lemon juice on one of them.
Hanging out in the spring was relaxing but draining at the same time. Swimming can wipe you out pretty quickly, and after about an hour, I figured it was time to bail.
I dipped my head under the surface and took off. On the way out, I turned around and took one last look at the spring.
Then it hit me: If there were any alligators in there, at least I'd be able to see them coming.
I'll take any head start I can get.
-- Staff writer Keith Niebuhr can be reached at 860-7337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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