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Like a trail of bread crumbs leading the way back home is the life line that few go in without. Lights off, and it’s so dark that even the animals that flit about have long ago lost the use of eyes or pigment in skin. The walls, at times, close in tight like a stone coffin. It’s cold, and the air is always in short supply.
For most people, the idea of strapping some clunky gear to their bodies and swimming through the depths of Florida’s watery caverns holds little appeal. Some, prone to claustrophobia, might even equate it to a waking nightmare. But it’s fair to say that Chiefland’s Mark and Annette Long are not most people.
“I had to promise my parents I’d never go into an underwater cave,” Mark Long says about his early days of diving. “That didn’t last long.”
He took his first SCUBA course when he was 13, inspired by snorkeling in places like Manatee Springs and by watching the popular 60s TV show “Sea Hunt,” an underwater adventure series with actor Lloyd Bridges playing the role of an ex-Navy frogman. Long was only 21 when got cave certified.
“I was always fascinated with where the water was coming from,” he says, comparing cave diving to being able to fly through the Grand Canyon.
In 1981, the same year he became cave certified, Long met veteran cave diver and pioneering underwater photographer Wes Skiles, a man Long says had a profound influence on him before his death while diving near West Palm Beach in 2010.
“Wes was really the first one to take the best underwater pictures in a cave,” Long says, adding that he was Skiles’ favorite underwater diving model. He can even be seen in the centerfold of an issue of National Geographic Skiles took photos for.
“There’s limited communication under water,” Long says, “but I understood him.”
That understanding between the two stretched over into other areas, as well. Spending so much time in Florida’s springs, the two felt they had an intimate understanding of how things were changing. The springs just weren’t the same, a phenomenon Long says he has witnessed since the late 1980s.
“Wes saw it long before the rest of us,” Long says. “He started speaking out about it a long time ago.”
But Long has carried on with those efforts, himself becoming an accomplished underwater photographer and vocal advocate for the health and well-being of Florida’s springs. His photography has been featured in a number of publications, and he’s now working on a website to both sell his prints and get the message out about just what’s at stake.
“He shares his pictures to show the beauty of Florida,” said Long’s other half and underwater muse, Annette, who also admits to “shamelessly” stealing her husband’s work to use in the countless numbers of presentations she also uses in an effort to raise awareness.
Annette Long’s passion for springs’ protection is equally as strong as her husband’s, though she has been the more outspoken of the two throughout the years.
The two met while cave diving, and, because Manatee Springs has always been a favorite spot, the two got married there, at Catfish Sink, in 1996.
But it wasn’t until the couple moved to Chiefland in 2001 that Annette Long said she became heavily involved in environmental issues.
“I found out it wasn’t illegal to ruin a first magnitude spring,” she says, shaking her head in disbelief. The two were in the process of building their house when Long says she found out about a proposed mine near enough to the springs to have had a devastating effect.
The mine project, proposed by a company with a historically spotty environmental record, was eventually rejected by county commissioners, but Long says the ordeal prompted her to start looking in to water quality throughout her neighborhood, which is just a little farther than a stone’s throw away from Manatee Springs.
She says some of the wells in her neighborhood were measuring 13 to 29 milligrams per liter for nitrates. The state says that anything over 10 mpl is unsafe to drink, and, in fact, studies show that 10 mpl is high enough to cause what doctors refer to as blue baby syndrome, an environmentally-caused illness that prevents the proper transfer of oxygen in the blood of infants.
There was a program put in place by then-Governor Jeb Bush to address “hot spots” such as those near Manatee Springs, she said, but subsequent officials have done away with the program.
Soon, Long says she got involved with Save Our Suwannee, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Suwannee River, and the Florida Springs Task Force, which no longer exists because of funding cuts. She also started attending meetings held by the Suwannee River Water Management District on a regular basis, taking note of decisions made and of facts used, or ignored, in determining what would happen to the water in this part of Florida.
“I used to be silent,” she says, “but it got to a point where nothing happened. For years I sat and didn’t say anything … but they weren’t even following their own rules anymore.”
Nowadays, she says she has a hard time keeping track of various agency meetings she has to attend. She averages about one a week, but admits she’s been to three in the last week alone. She protests, writes letters, lobbies officials, makes presentations, gives speeches and, in her own words in an earlier conversation, is, in general, a thorn in the side of those who would seek to exploit the natural places of Florida.
Why? Because, she says, somebody has to. Most elected officials won’t do it, even though it’s in the best interest of their constituents to have such things as clean water.
The challenge can be daunting, she admits. State officials pay little heed to laws already on the books meant to protect the quality of water, she says, and they’re equally negligent in their responsibility to preserve the quantity of water, often handing it over to corporate interests, despite data that shows water supplies trending downward.
“There’s been some success in Marion County,” she says, referring to the recent push by many to prevent the St. Johns Water Management District from granting a water permit asking for the use of 13.2 million gallons of water per day. Both Longs were active in several demonstrations regarding the issue.
Canadian billionaire and auto parts magnate Frank Stronach was seeking the permit to use on a large cattle ranch he hopes to open between the City of Ocala and the Ocala National Forrest. Opponents of Stronach say the permit would have devastated an already beleaguered Silver Springs, which is a mere trickle compared to what it once was.
Stronach recently announced he would only be asking for 5.2 million gallons of water per day, which, though not a total victory for springs advocates, did prove encouraging. However, Stronach’s representatives also said that in order for the cut to work, the ranch would have to rely on satellite locations, which, in part, points to Levy County, where the billionaire own about 35,000 acres.
Long said she’s worried, especially because much of that land is located near Blue Springs in Bronson. The county-run spring has been closed for months ever since it quit flowing, which could be complicated by large consumptive use permits so close to the spring.
The spring and much of Stronach’s property is situated within boundaries of the Suwannee River Water Management District, an agency Long says has traditionally had a hard time saying no when it comes to issuing permits, even when conditions suggest that it should.
Still, the Longs say they have hope and that they will continue to forge ahead with their message.
“I don’t want to see what’s been happening continue to happen,” Mark Long says, “because when they’re (the springs) are gone, they’re never coming back. There are politicians in this state who will be happy to pave it from one end to another. One day people are going to wake up and say, ‘How did this happen?’”