Exploring the mysteries of the Silver River

Tuesday, January 5, 2016
MADELINEDEJOURNETT photo Captain Dave has been a fixture at the Silver Springs State Park near Ocala, FL for 58 years. "I'm the oldest thing here!" the captain quips.

On the Road feature

From Tarzan to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, mysteries have been a part of Florida's Silver River for over a hundred years.

On the last day of 2015, this Midwest reporter stopped at the Silver Springs State Park at the headwaters of the Silver River to see if any of the myths were true. What secrets lie beneath the crystal clear waters? Is the "Blue Lagoon" really blue? Do wild monkeys still live on the river?

MADELINE DEJOURNETT photo Canoeists tease visitors aboard the 30-minute glass-bottomed boat tours on the Silver River.

The park's patriarch is "Captain Dave," who describes himself as "the oldest thing here." Formerly a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, this employee has worked at the park since 1957, when it was a popular theme park. The tourist attraction was taken over by the State of Florida two years ago.

A unique feature of past tourist visits to the park has been the sightings of feral monkeys, who have lived on the river since a certain jungle boat operator named Colonel Tooey released six rhesus macaques in 1938. It seems that Colonel Tooey had ordered squirrel monkeys for his island in the river, but he received the rhesus monkeys, who promptly swam to the mainland and began to reproduce.

At one point, it was estimated that as many as 300 monkeys lived in the trees along the river, and they were fed by jungle boat operators and the Silver Springs park employees. Captain Dave remembers seeing them everywhere.

MADELINEDEJOURNETT photo "Gods of the Deep?"From the glass-bottomed boats, three Greek statues can be seen staring across the depths of the Silver River. The statues are leftovers from a film shoot several years ago.

However, it seems the State of Florida was less enthusiastic about the presence of such non-indigenous residents, so trappers were hired as early as 1982 to rid the river of the mischievous creatures. According to most sources, about 200 of the monkeys were trapped and sold to research laboratories and zoos. A public outcry ensued, and the trapping stopped. However, an unknown number of the critters remain in the downstream region of the river. One of the park employees told of an incident which occurred in May of 2014, when the park was featuring an outdoor showing of a Tarzan cartoon. The monkeys sat in the trees and watched the Tarzan film.

As for the question about the Blue Lagoon, this reporter can confirm that the river does indeed appear to have blue water in several regions. Gazing down at the crystal clear depths through the glass-bottomed boats, visitors can see such features as the huge crevice which houses Mammoth Springs, which gushes 850 million gallons of water a day. Also visible are such sights as a 500-year old Spanish boat with metal fittings, thought to have sunk when DeSoto explored Florida. Blue shad fish swim through the eel grass, and three Greek statues stand on the bottom, leftovers from an old movie.

According to the tour boat captain, a diver once tried to measure the depths of Mammoth Spring, the largest of the springs at the river's headwaters. The diver went 80 feet down into the spring and then dropped a weighted line two miles farther.

MADELINEDEJOURNETT photo One statue from a long-ago film shoot stands in the visitors' center at the park, while the three others rest on the bottom of the river.

In the heyday of the theme park, such movies as "Thunderball," "Sea Hunt," Tarzan of the Apes," and "Creature from the Black Lagoon" were filmed on location at the park.

Peering through the blue depths of the river, it is easy to imagine famous Tarzan actor Johnny Wiessmuller diving in to fight an alligator, or Jane Russell swimming in the glittering waters of the paradise that is Silver Springs.

MADELINEDEJOURNETT photo This baby alligator is one of three raised by a resident female in the river. Females protect their babies from attack by male gators until the babies ate about two years old.
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