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Would you like to dive Silver Springs?

For a few years at the end of the Eisenhower administration Hollywood legend Lloyd Bridges used the once gin-clear output of Silver Springs as the set for a TV show based on a scuba diver.

Over 155 episodes of the adventure series “Sea Hunt” — more than 100 of which were filmed at Silver Springs — Bridges portrayed Mike Nelson, a one-time Navy frogman who in the space of 30 minutes, as the online version of Skin Diver magazine once noted, “got into trouble, got out of trouble, rescued a damsel, caught the bad guys and neatly wrapped things up with a safety message.”

Now that Silver Springs is slated to become a state park, and enticing ecotourists is viewed as a must, a drive is on to open up the waterway to the ranks of contemporary Mike Nelsons.

This week the County Commission directed County Administrator Lee Niblock to research what steps are necessary to allow scuba divers to return to the springs — who, except under certain circumstances, have been banned for a generation.

Some commissioners see the financial sense in doing so.

Commissioner Carl Zalak, who raised the issue of repealing the ban, said creating an opportunity for divers to explore these “great, incredible assets” in Marion County could boost international tourism to the community.

“There’s great interest to be able to dive the springs (and) go into those caves and cavern system,” Commissioner Stan McClain added.

McClain noted that some entrepreneurs likely stand ready to dive into a promising ecotourism market once Silver Springs reverts to public management in October.

“Certainly,” he said, “we don’t want to have something on our part that prohibits that.”

Their comments echo recent remarks from local divers who recently told Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials to allow scuba diving in Silver Springs once the state takes control.

But the board, and any of those divers or outdoors-oriented businesses, will need help from Tallahassee.

The county banned scuba diving at Silver Springs — as well as Rainbow Springs and Silver Glen Springs — under a series of local ordinances adopted in June 1986.

Yet those local regulations were based on a state law that was enacted in 1965 — and remains on the books today.

Then-state Rep. William G. O’Neill, of Ocala, proposed a bill designed, it said, to curtail activities that would “interfere, molest, disturb, or otherwise create a nuisance or hazard” that affected the marine life or water craft both in Silver Springs and Rainbow Springs.

One of those activities identified by O’Neill was scuba diving.

Which, his bill said, “constitutes a hazard to not only the divers so diving, but also to those persons who operate water craft” in the springs.

Ironically, O’Neill’s measure argued that a ban on diving was necessary to preserve the economic viability of the springs.

“Interferences with such springs and their use for attracting visitors will destroy and impede the economic growth of the tourist industry in Florida,” the bill said.

Those springs, according to O’Neill’s bill, were “havens” for underwater life as well as for the study and observation thereof.

“The state of Florida has a responsibility to its residents and visitors to maintain a high standard of public safety and to further protect the wildlife within its borders.”

O’Neill’s bill prohibited diving within 3,000 yards — or more than a mile and a half — of the springs’ headwaters.

The lawmaker added exceptions for professional photographers, performers and the television and film industries. He also allowed the operators of the springs to set aside sites for swimming and diving.

Once signs were posted notifying people of the ban, anyone who violated it would be charged with a misdemeanor, the bill states.

The impetus for the 1986 bans imposed by the County Commission, which also encompassed Silver Glen Springs in the Ocala National Forest as well as Silver and Rainbow, were requests from a member of the Rainbow River Advisory Board and other residents near the Dunnellon-area springs.

Advocates of the local law complained about scuba divers “vandalizing” Rainbow Springs, and called for stricter enforcement of the state law, according to a June 1986 Star-Banner report.

Although the Sheriff’s Office and prosecutors countered that the 1965 statute was vague and ultimately unenforceable, the County Commission decided action was needed.

While some commissioners believed diving should be allowed, others believed the community would drag the county to court to enforce the law, or that the threat could not be ignored.

“The things that we allow to happen on our waterways are criminal,” then-Commissioner Roy Abshier said at the time.

The 1986 ordinance specifically outlawed scuba diving in those waters, while the board also pushed for a state study to determine the impact diving had on the springs.

The state’s prohibition was reinforced in 1991 when state environmental regulators proposed turning Rainbow Springs into an aquatic preserve.

At the time, the Star-Banner reported, divers opposed the plan, arguing that the decision only saved homeowners along the Rainbow River.

“People seem to forget that the divers from Citrus and Marion and Levy have cleaned up the Rainbow River,” Dennis Saunders, the owner of an Ocala dive shop, said then. “We’ve picked up thousands of pounds of trash. We’ve made it what it is.”

In his comments on Tuesday, Commissioner Zalak suggested that spirit could be rekindled, if the springs were reopened to scuba divers.

Some scuba clubs, Zalak said, would welcome the chance to clean the springs as a “community project.”

Contact Bill Thompson at 867-4117 or at

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