Mesmerising Photos Reveal Hidden World of Underwater Caves

Dye experiments and a 360-degree tour are helping Floridians understand their water supply.

Where does my drinking water come from? You probably aren’t asking yourself this question on a daily basis. Maybe it has never crossed your mind. But for National Geographic Young Explorer Jennifer Adler, this is her passion, her life’s work.

Adler received a Young Explorer grant to start an environmental education program, Walking on Water, an undertaking that has included shooting the first 360-degree virtual tour in the Floridian Aquifer. The tour allows anyone with internet access to “immerse themselves in the aquifer, giving them more a feel for being on a cave dive with me, rather than just looking at a photo or even watching a video.”

A select few will ever have the opportunity to see the aquifer firsthand, considering extensive diver training, including cave diver training, is required before exploration of the water system. Adler says the 360 experience helps people “see a place that is usually off-limits yet plays an incredibly important role in their everyday lives,” which brings us back to the question of water sourcing. The Floridian Aquifer supplies an astonishing 92 percent of all drinking water for the Sunshine State, and it spans an area of about 100,000 square miles—almost as large as the entire state of Colorado.

It is Adler’s goal to help people understand one of their most vital resources, as well as their connection to it. According to Adler, there are more than 1,000 springs in Florida, all of which are fed by water from the underlying aquifer, and which are indicators of the state’s drinking water. 

A wide array of diverse, native wildlife call these springs home, from fish to invertebrates. But recently, many of the springs have been taken over by nuisance algae, as a result of over-pumping and pollution. But it’s not too late to restore their water quality, says Adler.

Scientists placed rhodamine WT dye in Silver Spring to measure its flow rates.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JENNIFER ADLER

That starts with the rain. Aquifers “recharge” as water falls from the sky and makes its way to sweet spots in the ground—areas with no confining layer of clay or impervious rock.

“It is critically important to protect these recharge areas so that enough water makes its way back down into the aquifer to replenish the billions of gallons we pump for human use each day,” says Adler.

She adds that the close connection between these areas and the aquifer means pollutants can easily find their way in. So having knowledge of the area’s geology helps scientists understand threats to the aquifer.

That’s why scientists sometimes place dyes in the water, to make it easier to measure flow rates and to see how different chambers may be connected to each other. This can help them estimate the spreading speed of pollutants or recharge rates.

In the photos on this page, researchers with David Kaplan’s Watershed Ecology Lab at the University of Florida used non-toxic rhodamine WT fluorescent dye as a tracer. After the dye is released, scientists measure its concentration downstream with devices called fluorometers and by taking water samples. This helps them understand how the water moves, mixes, and the amount of time it spends in the river channel as it flows downstream from the headspring.

Adler’s 360-degree virtual tour may also add to this picture. She says it’s like Google Street View but in a cave. While interacting with the virtual tour, users are able to click on additional photos and info buttons to learn more about the cave and cave diving, like getting a close-up view of a miniature fossil and learning more about what the evidence of a marine species tells us about the history of the ecosystem.

Reaver swims through a cloud of the dye.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JENNIFER ADLER

To create the tour, Adler and team often used up to twelve lights for each image. Each 360 image, or photosphere, is comprised of six to eight images stitched together. The tour is made up of nine of these photospheres, which she captured with the help of an underwater camera housing mounted to a tripod. She would rotate the camera in a steady circle to capture all of the images to stitch together. For a closer look at the process, check out this video.

Adler hopes that after viewing the tour, people will have a better understanding of what an aquifer is. Though the concept may seem simple, it’s a big problem in a place like Florida, “where we literally live our lives walking on top of our drinking water, and consequently, our actions at the surface affect the water beneath our feet.”

Header Image: PhD candidate and hydrologist Nathan Reaver dives into a cloud of rhodamine WT dye in Florida's Silver Spring during a water quality study. PHOTOGRAPH BY JENNIFER ADLER

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