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Story Six
Breathing Deeply
By MaryAlice Yakutchik
Silver Glen -- People once flocked to this river, its magical springs in particular, seeking a cure. The first guidebook to the St. Johns even advised visiting invalids beset by breathing troubles to exercise by playing a flute.

I'm not sure if the didgeridoo qualifies, but when our Kiwi boat pilot produces a 5-foot-long aboriginal wind instrument after a dinner on the deck of the Miss Mary, we all have a blow at it, coughers and wheezers notwithstanding.

Just for the record, there are some seriously superior sets of lungs on this expedition: Tom Morris, for instance, a rosy-cheeked cave-diving biologist. His personal record for holding his breath, back in his prime, was four minutes,15 seconds.

Tom's other claim to fame, circuitously related to his mettle-testing feat, is his namesake crayfish: Procambarus morrisi is a cave-dwelling species that he discovered on one of his countless forays into Florida's subterranean waterways.

"We need to catalogue these things while they're still there," Tom says, anxious about an alarming trend toward biodiversity loss resulting from habitat destruction and exotic species proliferation.


"I dove almost every spring up and down the river," Tom says. However, this is the first time he's spending 10 straight days traveling the length of it, from mouth to headwaters.

If aquatic isopods lack the charisma of celebrated river species like manatees and gators, they make up for it in intrigue, Tom insists. His infectious affinity for small crustaceans no doubt is linked to the fact that their cave habitats, deep within springs, are virtually inaccessible by air-breathing creatures bigger than a breadbox; as a result, they are Florida's final frontiers.

"Silver Glen spring is about as stable an environment as you can get," Tom explains. "The water temperature of 72 varies by only about a degree. The salinity is always the same. There's no organic matter in the water, filtered as it is by deep sand."

The animals that live under such constant conditions may be a kind of "miner's canary" about underground water, according to Tom: "They probably are good indicators of aquifer health." They are exceedingly sensitive to changes in water quality. And the water quality of all the component parts of the St. Johns -- its tributaries, springs, wetlands and recharge zones -- is under assault.

"We need to catalogue these things while they're still there," Tom says, anxious about an alarming trend toward biodiversity loss resulting from habitat destruction and exotic species proliferation.

"Over 40 different types of animals in this state live in either one or two springs," he says, "the Silver Glen crayfish, for instance, lives only here."

Venturing into this spring requires a scientific permit, not to mention technical experience in cave diving. It's a first-magnitude spring, meaning more than 100 cubic feet of water per second -- that's more than 10,000 gallons -- gushes up from the aquifer and is forced through a passageway that's roughly 5 feet wide and 18 inches high. It's like swimming into a fire hydrant, Tom says.

"Over 40 different types of animals in this state live in either one or two springs," he says, "the Silver Glen crayfish, for instance, lives only here."


He, with cave-diving film producers Wes Skiles and Jill Heinerth, will be exploring this clean, clear ecosystem in the course of two to three dives over two or three days. The investigation of the cave and its contents will require every bit of strength these divers have.

Tom's been diving for more than 40 years, since he was 12: "My dad showed up one day with a scuba tank and a book by Lloyd Bridges, The Art of Skin and Scuba Diving. I was immediately hooked."

He quit logging dives after about 1400 or so. Same with Jill, who Tom approvingly describes as "hard-core." She dove deeper and farther into the earth than any woman alive, breaking a record in 1998 during a mapping project that took her 10,000 feet into a cave at 300 feet of depth on a 21-hour mission in Wakulla Springs, in northwestern Florida.

"Tom and Wes, they have more mileage in underwater caves than anyone," Jill pipes up, attempting to deflect the attention.

Jill was 16 when she had her first dive experience. Helped herself to a tank at the swimming pool she was working at. Never before had cleaning grout been so much fun.

Her earliest memory in life is of drowning.

"As a toddler, I fell off a dock. I have this vivid image of myself lying face down, watching rainbows in the water, mesmerized by the sand ripples. And then I saw two blue sneakers with bright white shoelaces. My mom. She was screaming. I was squealing with glee. Later, I failed baby swim class. I would just lie in the water, face down, and exhale, looking all around as I sunk down. I was free-diving, I guess."

Free diving, she contends, is the purest way to experience an underwater environment. On a good day, Jill could hold her breath for more than two minutes.

"We're lucky we don't have these low-oxygen events in our atmosphere, cause we'd be suffocating," Tom says. Low-oxygen events on the St. Johns are not uncommon, and curing them sure involves a heck of a lot more than some long-winded flute playing.


These days, she's smitten with the rebreather, a high-tech air-recycling system borrowed by divers from astronauts. As an exploration tool, it allows her to increase her depth, range and safety. "The biggest benefit is you become one with the environment, no bubbles, no noise," she says. "You feel like a fish."

To feel like a fish in the St. Johns on any given day is, sadly enough, to be oxygen-deprived. The river's nutrient overload gobbles up oxygen, and sediment problems inhibit the all-important aquatic grasses from photosynthesizing -- converting sunlight to oxygen. The most recent water test performed by DEP scientist Jim Maher revealed that the dissolved-oxygen level in the main stem of the river was under the lethal range for fish.

Breathing oxygen-depleted air (less than 21 percent), feels "unsatisfactory," Jill describes: "Your lungs are full, but not feeling nourished. There's a tingling and a confusion that starts gnawing at the edges of your consciousness."

"We're lucky we don't have these low-oxygen events in our atmosphere, cause we'd be suffocating," Tom says.

Low-oxygen events on the St. Johns are not uncommon, and curing them sure involves a heck of a lot more than some long-winded flute playing.


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