A Quick Dip in the Aquifer!

By Jennifer Adler, National Geographic Young Explorer

The thermometer in my car read 45° F, yet every inch of my trunk was stuffed with life jackets, masks, and snorkels. Beneath layers of fuzzy sweatshirts and leggings hid a pink bathing suit.

I wasn’t the only one dressed for summer in mid-March. Forty fifth-graders from Williams Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida, also woke up and donned bathing suits.

We were headed to swim at Blue Springs Park as part of “Walking on Water,” an environmental education program that immerses kids in the springs, cameras in hand, to teach them about Florida’s freshwater. I’d dreamed of creating this program for a few years, and wasn’t sure how much of my shivers were from the cold, and how much from the excitement that it was finally happening.

Jennifer Adler’s dive buddy navigates the fabulous Floridan Aquifer. Click here to learn more.
Photograph by Jennifer Adler

Despite the weather, the giant charter bus emerged, bobbing down the long, dirt road to the park. It squeezed through the creaky metal gate with only inches to spare on each side, and 40 kids came screaming off the bus. Most had never seen a spring, much less what lies beneath the surface.

Steam billowed from Blue Spring’s clear waters, sending wisps up into the air like a pot of hot tea. I dipped my toes in and the water felt warm—27° warmer than the air temperature, to be exact. The water in the spring flows directly from the underlying aquifer, and its temperature reflects the average year-round temperature in this part of Florida, about 72° F.

The kids sat on the sandy steps leading to the water, shivering for a minute or two as we passed out life jackets that they reluctantly zipped and cinched tight for safety. Masks took a few attempts to secure. Despite their chills, every child raised a hand when I asked who wanted to go swimming.

Jenny demonstrates how to put on a mask and snorkel.
Photograph by Peter Houlihan

Each buddy pair took a camera and ventured into the bathtub-warm water. For about 30 minutes, they entered a world of sunfish, snails, and (the favorite) turtles. Here is a bit of what they captured:

While one group took in the sights underwater, another peered in from above, standing on the long, wooden boardwalk that offers an aquarium-clear view of the spring run as it winds a quarter-mile out to the Santa Fe River.

Environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett teaches students about creative writing on the boardwalk overlooking the spring run.
Photograph by Peter Houlihan

Environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett led students on a nature walk while helping them observe and describe sounds, smells, and surroundings. They learned to use a field guide, action verbs, and “telling details.” Later, they wrote fun prose—one student even wrote a “River Rap”!

River Rap

by Tara

I smell sweet sap

“Snap Snap”

I see fresh grass

as well as bass!

I smell a campfire!

The water is sapphire

I see the water flowing

The wind is blowing

I see insects and birds!

It’s absurd!

These two field trips were the first of six that will take place this spring as part of Walking on Water, which is part of my Ph.D. work at the University of Florida.

Raindrops began to speckle the surface—but it didn’t faze students as they searched for snails on the sandy bottom. These two girls even found and photographed a hogchoker!
Photograph by Peter Houlihan

As part of the program, students complete pre- and post-trip surveys that help me evaluate the effectiveness of underwater photography and creative writing as teaching tools. Preliminary results show that students who participated in the program significantly improved their knowledge of the springs and aquifer.

One theme that emerged in written responses was that underwater photography helped students see the spring in a new way by encouraging them to look more closely and see the details they would have otherwise missed. They also noted that photography allowed them to study the species that lived in the springs and see it as a home for a variety of plants and animals.

Fifth-grade students from Williams Elementary School explore Blue Spring and document the world beneath the surface through underwater photography.
Photograph by Jennifer Adler

The underlying aquifer supplies water not only to the springs, but also to 92% of Floridians. By immersing kids in the natural source of their drinking water, cameras in hand, we can help the next generation understand their connection to this vital resource as well as the ecosystems that rely on a clean, abundant supply of water.

To view more of the students’ photographs and creative writing, explore the aquifer virtual tour, or keep up with the project, visit https://walkingonwaterfl.org.

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