View from the hiking trail bluff above Peacock Spring
With more than 300 document springs in the Suwannee River Basin its hard to decide where to start searching for the most spectacular of these features. This area has one of the highest concentrations of freshwater springs in the USA. Of Florida's 33 first-magnitude springs (ones flowing at least 100 cubic feet per second, or 64 million gallons a day), 21 are in the Suwannee Watershed.
Springs of the Suwannee River Watershed
When spring hunting I look at maps like the one above, then compare them to Google Maps and search for the most easily accessible groupings of springs to visit in a day. On this day I've decided on Lafayette Blue Spring, Peacock Spring, Convict Spring, and Troy Spring because they're all located within about a 25 mile distance of one another, with a little detour to get to Peacock and Convict Springs making the whole trip about 45 miles. Of course I have to get there first. Its a good 3+ hour drive from the Orlando area north to Gainesville and then west on 27 toward Fort White and beyond.
My spring-hunting route is plotted
With this post I start in the middle of my journey, at Peacock Spring. I figured I would scope them all out then start really hiking, swimming, and photographing at Peacock because of its reputation as one of the country's best cave diving systems.
Hal Adams Bridge on Hwy 51 over the Suwannee River, near Peacock Springs
When I finally see the Hal Adams Bridge over the Suwannee I know I'm getting close to Peacock. Its been a long drive already.
When I find Peacock Springs I'm surprised by how rural and primitive the 733 acre park is. I'm more accustomed to the crowds of Central Florida. Located on a quiet country road this place would be easy to miss except for the sign.
On the park road I think I'm in trouble several times. The road is narrow, muddy, and poorly maintained. I don't really mind because this means there will be fewer people in the park.
But after some hairpin curves and little hills, and lots of mud puddles, I finally reach a small parking area and boardwalk that leads to the main spring. There are a surprising number of cars in the parking area but few people around and lots of diving equipment. All of the visitors on this spring day are divers exploring the spring's extensive caverns. I have a phobia of dark water since one of my older brothers almost drowned me when I was a kid, so I'll be staying near or on the surface.
A lone diver walks through the dramatic forest boardwalk leading to the spring entrance at Peacock Spring.
Behind me the parking area disappears in the thick forest.
The few divers I encounter are much more mature than the crowds at nearby Troy and Lafayette Blue Springs. When I see the spooky-looking spring emerging from the dense forest I'm chatting with an older diver about my fear of such dark places. He tells me I have to overcome my fears. I tell him I'll be happy to share his pictures from down below, but I won't be getting in.
The limestone formation rises to the surface of Peacock Spring evoking the oddly shaped passage ways that one will find below through the cave system.
First look at Peacock Spring
A lightly worn trail around the spring boil leads to different perspectives of the spring. The area is heavily wooded so in afternoon the light is very diffuse giving the spring a dark blue hue.
Diver's carry oxygen canisters down to the spring entrance.
The flow here is imperceptible. The spring is wide and deep and the run to the south is equally wide and deep. There is no visible boil of water characteristic of most Florida springs. The water ripples and as I walk along the spring run I can see flow over some outcroppings. Here and there diver's air bubbles emerge from the dark water below.
Walking through these quiet, dense woods one can imagine what it was like here a century ago. On this afternoon the only noise was from birds and an occasional surfacing diver.
I decide to hike to Orange Sink, through the forest. This is not advisable unless you are protected from insects. The worst this forest has to offer are abundant ticks and chiggers. You won't notice these critters until you get home, however. So prepare. Tuck pants into socks, spray yourself with DEET, and cover your head, neck and ears to protect from biting flies, mosquitoes, and sweat bees.
The hiking trail begins at the head spring area, and winds through the forest recreating the journey that would be made underwater if you were scuba diving in the underground cave network.
Along the way there are many small spring pools and sinkholes to provide a glimpse into the underwater world below. These many sinks, sinkholes and little intermittent springs are down steep depressions in the limestone. They remind me a lot of Madison Blue Spring, a bit further northwest on the Withlacoochee River.
A karst window provides the only view I'll have of the underwater caves around Peacock Springs.
There are interpretive signs and kiosks along the 1.2 mile trail that explain what you are standing on, and what divers below may be going through as they embark on their journey through the underwater cave network below.
The periodic views into the underwater world are often matched by the views above and around you, giving one the opportunity to be truly immersed in towering trees and vibrant greens found in landscapes of the North Florida woods.
Orange Grove Sink is one of two major springs in Peacock Springs State Park — which boasts an additional nine sinkholes and springs, and a long slough, meandering down to the Suwannee River. With over 38,000 feet of explored passage, Peacock offers divers the chance to explore one of the longest underwater cave systems in the United States.
The humidity of the forest clouds my lenses. On my return to the main spring I find it appearing empty, though I know divers are still down below.
While I prefered to think that these springs were named for the peacock-like limestone formation just below the water's surface—its a better story than the truth—the reality is that in 1875, a Dr. John Calvin Peacock purchased the property, where he raised cattle and religious fervor in church services held in his home. This tract of land, located within the buckle of the southern Bible Belt, boasts an early connection with radical christianity. One spring, appropriately named Baptizing Spring, was the site of a Timucuan Indian village, and later a thriving Spanish mission. Natives and immigrants were dunked in the clear water as they were supposedly "saved" from their native beliefs.
Orange Grove Cavern as a diver sees it.
Photo: Kilrill Egorov
For a lot of underwater images of Peacock Spring go to Extreme Exposure: Peacock Springs There you'll also find an overview of the underwater cave system noting that Peacock Spring is one of North Florida's most popular dive sites for cavern and cave diving. With a total of nine entrances and exits, Peacock is known as a complex karst system. Six of the nine openings are easily accessible, however three of the openings are only used as emergency exits. The karst windows in the system vary from spring, siphon, in-line sink, and off-set sink. When choosing an entrance in this system, care should be taken to match your skill level and training to the dive site.
Bonnet Springs, although on the Peacock State Park property is considered a separate, advanced cave dive. The entrance to Bonnet is locked; access is limited to full cave divers who have been introduced to the system by a diver with previous experience in Bonnet. Additionally, Bonnet has been closed to diving for several years now due to the presence of a known Alligator.
Due to the low flow characteristic of Peacock, the visibility is often affected by seasonal water level changes in the Suwannee river. The caves of the Peacock often are dark with tannic water during the rainy winter months.
Forgetting for a moment about the actual history of the Reverend Peacock, a better history of the area begins when The Nature Conservancy purchased Peacock’s 250-acre ranch to create the park, and in 2006 the Trust for Public Land expanded the territory to encompass an additional 481 acres. In 2011, the park name was appended, to honor the late Wes Skiles, a cave-diving filmmaker and springs’ advocate who worked tirelessly to protect Florida’s water resources.
Luraville Country Store, Lafayette County, Florida
After exploring Peacock Spring its time for a late lunch at the Luraville Country Store. It is not just a meal break, it’s a visit with cave diving history and a chance to review the large cave map shellacked to the eight-foot wooden cafe table. The place is a hangout, not just for post-dive exaltations but also for local coffee-drinking philosophers and dusty, itinerant farm workers. On the wall, archival photos of past floods and other mementos of Old Florida history hang over racks containing Spanish tabloids, chewing tobacco and Slim Jims. The resulting blend of cultures and confections give the store a unique kitsch factor that makes it memorable and special.
Inside the Luraville Country Store, Live Oak, Florida with its kitch and and bespoke Peacock Springs Cave Survey Map Table.
Another view of the Hwy 51 bridge between Mayo and Live Oak (Luraville) across the Suwannee River.
A trail and cave system map with historical information found at Peacock Springs State Park.