Rewind to the Fall of 2014, week after week of cancelled dive trips.  Our local freedive community was afflicted with a bad case of cabin fever. We Needed To Dive!!  Luckily for me, living in Central Florida, I was surrounded by our amazing natural Freshwater Springs.  These springs (dating back to prehistoric times)  which are scattered across the state like stars in the sky,  fortunately deliver consistent / perfect dive conditions year round.  With a constant temp of 22 degrees Celsius, visibility averaging 30-60 meters and depths ranging from 10-40 meters, what better place to escape old man Winter and the rough seas that plagued the coast of Florida.

That is when Freedive SPRINGfest was born.

The PLAN

Create a gathering of like-minded Freedivers (new and experienced), promote freedive safety/education throughout the community,  expose the “ocean folks” to our wonderful springs, and give freedivers the chance to demo & test various freedive products (not just read about a review, but actually try carbon fiber fins for example).  Sponsor after sponsor jumped on board and before we knew it, we had a maxed out participant list of 50 Freedivers from all over the Southern United States and had enough items donated for our Free Raffle so that every single participant took home a prize!  How did it turn out? Springfest 2014 was a huge success leaving everyone hungry for more and counting down the days until the next years event!

Fast forward to Freedive SPRINGfest 2016!

With a successful even bigger (75 person) 2-day SPRINGfest 2015 under our belt, we were ready to grab 2016 by the horns!  This years Springfest would far surpass previous years from all aspects.  More divers, better venue, guests of honor, larger product demo, more sponsors, bigger raffle and one hell of a weekend!  How would we accomplish this?  After-all, 2015 was a huge success.

I reached out to friend and World Record Freediver Alexey Molchanov, whom I had spent time with last year at the Big Blue World Cup freedive competition, and invited Alexey to be our Springfest 2016 Guest of Honor.  In true Alexey fashion, and always up for underwater adventure, he was excited and looking forward to joining us for our biggest SPRINGfest yet!  Our goals for 2016 were taking shape, and lucky for us, we had an amazing line up of 18 incredible sponsors, including our title Sponsors, Divers Direct and PADI, who were up for the challenge!

In prior SPRINGfest events, we watched our demographic grow from approx 50% of SPRINGfest participants having taken a freedive course, to now over 85% of participants had taken freedive classes.  So our first goal as always, is to continue freedive education.  Divers Direct and PADI sponsored 2 pre-SPRINGfest freedive classes where myself and Alexey Molchanov certified 11 SPRINGfest freedivers, making them safer & more knowledgeable as well as better freedivers!  SPRINGfest was off to a great start!

SPRINGfest 2016 Freediving Class - Photo Outdoor Fl Creation
SPRINGfest 2016 Freediving Class – Photo Outdoor Fl Creation

With over 100 freedivers registered, and ready for a weekend of camping, freediving and good old fashion fun, we were set up at the beautiful Blue Springs Park in Gilchrist County.  Mother nature delivered us some rare winter rain leading up to SPRINGfest weekend, and Saturday morning would prove no different.  As the day started with light drizzle, campers awoke to wet tents and a water scattered landscape as they made their way to the official check in.  Some participants camped out the night before and some arrived from neighboring cities or made all night drives to join us.  If there is one thing I can say about SPRINGfesters …..  we are a loyal and die hard group!  As participants checked in, they received their official event t shirts, grab bags full of goodies provided by our sponsors and of course, the oh so important raffle ticket!  Each participant receives only one ticket, insuring that each and every participant has and equal chance to win some amazing prizes.

After check in and our official safety meetings where rules and itinerary were shared, freedivers began to get geared up and ready for our first dive of the weekend! We had two tables full of dive gear for SPRINGfest participants to test out.   Plastic long-blade fins, fiberglass, carbon fiber, low volume masks, you name it, we had it in all sizes!   This is probably one of my favorite things to deliver to the SPRINGfest family, the demo.   Where else do you get to try dive gear out before you buy it?!   With the SPRINGfest clan ready for some diving, we were off to the water!

SPRINGfest 2016 Alexey Molchanov, Wes Powell and Forrest Simon-Darias
SPRINGfest 2016 Alexey Molchanov, Wes Powell and Forrest Simon-Darias

Blue Springs Park is a stellar piece of property that is home to several incredible springs.   Some of the springs are linked via shallow (1 meter depth) river runs which allow spring “hopping” by swimming from one spring to another, while other springs require a short hike through the wilderness. Each spring provides its own unique characteristics.   While swimming through the river runs,  many participants described it as swimming through an enormous aquarium, we witnessed and took pictures of countless underwater wildlife.  Turtles, fish, crayfish, incredibly colored vegetation, and of course, crystal clear water.  To say the experience was surreal would be an understatement.   Several hours of exploration and we were ready for some lunch and and our Monster Raffle!

As though the “Freedive” Pied Piper was playing an alluring “Freedive melody”, freedivers emerged from all ends of the park , making their way to the Springfest hub.  As i witnessed this, I couldn’t help but notice all the non-freedive guests of the park staring in wonder, kids where pointing, saying “look at those flippers!”.   We gathered together under the official pavilion, and as if we said a huge group prayer, the freedive gods worked hand in hand with mother nature and before we realized it, the overcast rainy day turned into a picture perfect Florida day.   The sun shined bright and our energy level grew as each min passed. We were ready for the raffle!

SPRINGfest 2016 Orange Cove - Photo Justus Martin Photography
SPRINGfest 2016 Orange Cove – Photo Justus Martin Photography

After some announcements and recognizing each and every one of our sponsors, as well as the people that help make SPRINGfest the incredible freedive event that it is, we were ready to get the raffle going!  Alexey and Jarrad from Divers Direct took turns picking names from the lucky box.   Each and every single participant at SPRINGfest took home a great prize ranging from a freedive course, new carbon fins, mask, and t-shirts to name a few.   Total, we raffled 8 freedive courses along with a pile of freedive gear and apparel!  With new prizes in their possession, and some freedivers eager to try their new gear out, we were off to the Blue Hole at Itchetucknee Springs State Park!

After a short car ride , and a good hike through the woods, we arrived to our next dive spot.  The world famous Blue Hole.   This Spring is in the middle of the woods and is a little oasis surrounded my trees and wild life.   At first glance after entering the water it appears to only be a 3 meter diameter hole in the ground about 3 meters deep.  But after you penetrate the whole with a strong flow of the clearest water you have ever seen, you quickly realize that this “hole” opens into a cavern approx 12 meters deep.  This room is amazing and hypnotizing.  As you look around you cant help but realize how old this place is and how it has taken millions of years for the constant flow of fresh water to carve passageways in the natural Florida limestone.  Truly amazing!   As you exit the cavern, you see the sun rays shining down through the exit, and with the current of water exiting the cavern, find yourself “transported” through the light beams, back to the surface.   We dove the Blue Hole for several hrs, with thousands of pictures taken and hrs upon hrs of video, we were ready to eat and have a Springfest party!!

As we headed back to camp at Blue Springs, a small group of SPRINGfesters were getting ready for the evenings festivities.   Brian Muth, was setting up entertainment for our listening pleasure.  Brian has performed at each SPRINGfest and not only is a great guy, but also an awesome freediver who really knows how to jam!  Playing his acoustic guitar, SPRINGfesters relaxed and caught up with one another on the days festivities.   Friends from events past caught up and new friendships were formed.   This is the beauty of SPRINGfest, meeting and diving with other freedivers and extending your freedive/ friendship network.  Since the start of SPRINGfest it has been amazing to witness the friendships that have been forged.    As Brian took breaks, another talented SPRINGfester, Octavio took to the “stage”, Octavio is an outstanding flutist who played away on his flute , setting again, an amazing atmosphere for all to enjoy.

SPRINGfest 2016 David Welch with a Springfest selfie
SPRINGfest 2016 David Welch with a Springfest selfie

All the while, Kerry Howell, Steve Benson, and Ashleigh Baird (Team USA Freedivers), surprised the SPRINGfest family by cooking the most amazing Paella over a huge open grill.   The music, the food, the people, what an amazing evening, THIS is what SPRINGfest is all about. But it didn’t end there!  In true SPRINGfest fashion, after the food was done, the music wrapped up, SPRINGfesters were ready for our annual night dive!

With underwater lights , Go Pros in hand, and an energy level rivaled only by a class of small children, we hopped into to the main spring run for an incredible swim.  Alexey and Official Camera madman Wes Powell lit up the underwater landscape, and the group was off!  Swimming in the springs at night is something that words cant do justice, pictures cannot capture, it is truly incredible.  The full moon lighting up areas naturally, the underwater creatures that come out, and the mystical “space-like” vibe is all indescribable.   We swam until our toes and fingers were numb then one by one made our way back to camp.  An incredible Springfest day was now on the books and the campfires were roaring.   Most SPRINGfesters spent the remainder of the evening hanging out around fire, telling stories, getting to know each other and thoroughly enjoying good company.

The Second Day

Day 2 of SPRINGfest started early as we ventured to nearby Orange Grove/Peacock Springs.  This set of springs is truly unique in layout and appearance.  At first glance when arriving to Orange Grove you think you are literally about to swim in the swamp.  The water is covered in green duckweed.  You expect poor visibility and underwater creatures to surprise you from all ends.   As you make your way down the wooden stairs into the spring, you think to yourself, what am i getting myself into?  But the second your mask penetrates the green covered surface, it is as if you are visiting another planet.  The visibility is terrific, the landscape is like a canyon of sorts with old trees, huge rocks, all leading down to a cave.  It should be eerie but it is not, its actually quite hypnotizing as little particles of duckweed are suspended in the water column, taking your eyes from one spec to another.  Reflecting light from the bright sun above    As you make dives and accent, the image of safety divers on the surface, surrounded by this translucent duck weed is again, something that cannot be described.  Sun is shining through and you get the feeling you are visiting the surface of mars.  Truly amazing!

As SPRINGfest 2016 came to an end, participants were wore out from 2 days of incredible diving.  Great times with friends new and old, and already looking fwd to SPRINGfest 2017!   Everyone swapped the almighty social media info, and already were posting pictures and videos that they had taken throughout the weekend.  SPRINGfest again was a huge success.  We helped educate and certify new freedivers, witnessed new friendships, and showed new freedivers the sport of freediving recreationally as well as gave a glimpse to the world of competitive freediving.  SPRINGfest 2016 was one for the books and next years event is already shaping up to be out of this world!

Plans are underway, see you in 2017. Dive safe!

SPRINGfest 2016 Group Shot - Photo Outdoor Fl Creation
SPRINGfest 2016 Group Shot – Photo Outdoor Fl Creation

Forrest Simon
Forrest is a South Florida Native who has been freediving for 30 plus years. He is a freedive Instructor, avid Freedive advocate , USA competitive freediver and will be representing the USA in June at the AIDA Pool World Championships in Finland. Through freedive courses, events like springfest and community outreach, Forrest is on a mission to spread freedive education.

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