Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon's quest to find eternal youth in magic fountain form is an enduring Florida story. Most historians agree this is nothing more than an engaging myth.
But Florida's springs, natural fountains that bubble from underground rivers from deep inside the earth, are very real. Photographers, artists, geologists and naturalists have ranked them among the earth's greatest wonders.
To dive or snorkel in them is to experience an otherworldly sensation, a weightless flight through an underwater garden shaped by water clear as a lens, gnome-like rock formations, darting fish and billowing aquatic plants.
"They are magical places for the solace of the soul," said Margaret Ross Tolbert, who has dived in the springs and painted them for nearly three decades. She finds in them a rejuvenating element, perhaps akin to that legendary fountain of Ponce de Leon's.
"The experience of being in the springs is a kind of ecstatic harmony. In other times in life we sometimes feel this - emotionally, spiritually - as if everything and everyone is pulsing with the same energy, flow and radiance. The springs is the experience - the model, metaphor and illustration of that ecstasy."
Sometimes sketching under water, sometimes painting on a huge mural balanced delicately on her kayak floating over huge caverns, Tolbert is Florida's premier springs artist, interpreting their beauty and mystery in diverse ways. Through paintings, poetry and essays, she celebrated the springs in her 2010 book AquiFERious, which won two Florida Book Award prizes.
Tolbert chronicled and illustrated more than a dozen of the 700 springs percolating in north and central Florida. These springs range from tiny trickles known only to deep backwoods explorers to mammoth gushers like Wakulla, Manatee, and Silver Springs, known as "first magnitude" because they discharge more than 65 million of gallons of water per day.
Many offer swimming, snorkeling, diving, photography, camping, canoeing, tubing or kayaking in water with a constant average temperature of 72 degrees. Silver Springs and Wakulla Springs offer glass-bottom boat tours. Rainbow Springs near Dunnellon often is considered the most beautiful of the state's 33 first-magnitude springs, more than any other state and more than any nation can boast.
A few hours' visit to any of Florida's bubbling wonders can reveal a living composition of wildlife and plants.
Frequently seen creatures include manatees, otters, the secretive, eel-like greater siren, loggerhead musk turtles, Florida gar and maybe an alligator - which should be given wide berth. Eel grass, the delicate, pale spider lily and stately bald cypress trees help paint the biological variety that is such a part of Florida's character.
Restoring and preserving the springs and all the life within them is one of Tolbert's goals. Doing so means learning about them from multiple perspectives, which is among the purposes of AquiFERious, she said.
"I'd like people to immerse themselves in art and the ideas that inform it and the artist's journey, just as they immerse themselves in the springs," Tolbert said. "I'd like that paradigm shift of considering art and science both to illuminate reality, the poetic as perhaps the only way to wholly understand it."
Those who find the springs entrancing can see Tolbert's interpretations in a number of locations. Her permanent exhibit at Orlando International Airport is scheduled to open in late September. It is a collection of hundreds of mosaics, or small canvases, at Airside 1, the international terminal of the world's 25th-busiest airport. Hundreds of thousands of passengers yearly will learn - or re-learn - that Florida's appeal reaches to the recesses of its geography.
Much of her mural-sized artwork stuns strollers in hotels around the state and the Shands and North Florida Regional hospitals in Gainesville, Tolbert's home town, where a huge springs painting also is on display at the University of Florida's Reitz Union Building.
"Walk into (a) gallery devoted to Tolbert's paintings and you probably will suppress a gasp," wrote Tampa Bay Times critic Lennie Bennett.
Tolbert understands such response.
"A spring is the object of desire for so many people," she said. "Any encounter is possible. Five hundred-year-old water. Two hundred-year-old crayfish. It is a repository for dreams."
-- Jon Wilson, Visit Florida
Where worry drifts away: Alexander Springs Recreation Area is located on the eastern side of the Ocala National Forest. Water bubbles from beneath the limestone floor at a constant 72 degrees forming a large spring pool. (Photo by Julie Fletcher)
Through the looking glass: Floating at Alexander Springs Recreation Area with a crystal-clear view. ( Photo/Julie Fletcher)
Perfect plunge: To escape the heat and humidity of a Florida summer day, immersion is recommended. The water is 72 degrees, the clarity of the springs is remarkable. (Photo by Julie Fletcher)
A natural slip and slide: Just minutes from the Orlando area is Wekiwa Springs State Park. Located at the headwaters of the Wekiva River is a swimming hole with a natural spring, which visitors an opportunity to swim, canoe, kayak, picnic, hike or relax. (Photo by Julie Fletcher)
Thinking about it: Wekiwa Springs State Park, minutes from Orlando, is a swimming hole with a natural spring. Visitors swim, canoe, kayak, picnic, hike or, in this young man's case, dare to be great. (Photo by Julie Fletcher)
Aquaman: Juniper Springs Recreation Area is in Ocala National Forest. (Photo by Julie Fletcher)
Summer oasis: Juniper Springs Recreation Area in Ocala National Forest is one of the oldest and best-known recreation spots on the East Coast. (Photo/Julie Fletcher)
Hovering in Space: Juniper Springs, located between Ocala and Ormond Beach along SR 40, is a complex of swimming and picnic area, campground, and trails and was constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. (Photo by Julie Fletcher)
Mermaids: Juniper Springs Recreation Area is east of Ocala in the Ocala National Forest. (Photo by Julie Fletcher)
Playground: Due to its natural qualities, the Rock Springs Run is both a state-designated Florida paddling trail and a national wild and scenic river. (Photo by Julie Fletcher)
Reach into the Clear: Ichetucknee Springs was declared a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1972. Swim in the spring or tube down the river that flows for six miles through forests and wetlands. (Photo by Julie Fletcher)
Along for the ride: From the end of May until early September, tubing down the Ichetucknee River is the premier activity in the area. (Photo by Julie Fletcher)
Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder: In addition to tubing, visitors to the Ichetucknee River can enjoy picnicking, snorkeling, canoeing, swimming, hiking, and wildlife viewing. (Photo by Julie Fletcher)
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