Florida’s natural springs are overflowing with social media-driven tourists
A paddle glides through pristine water, creating the sound of a gentle swish that cuts through the call of songbirds. The spring run babbles over tipped trees and their roots and flows through the dancing eelgrass below. Trees of emerald and chartreuse create a canopy of green against the blue sky above, spotted with meandering cotton ball clouds. Sunlight glints off the water’s surface, which sparkles like an aquamarine gemstone.
Silver Springs State Park is a beautiful spot to escape into Florida’s wilderness. Skip the crowds and the World Famous Glass Bottom Boats to paddle downstream into Wild Florida. A manatee huffs to the right, munching on water lettuce and blooming water hyacinth. On shore, an alligator basks in the sun.
Florida’s natural springs are an oasis for many: locals and tourists, humans and wildlife, alike. But what most don’t know is the frequent visitations — many of which are inspired by social media — can drastically harm the crystal clear waters and surrounding ecosystems, leaving unseen footprints for decades.
The Florida Springs Institute explains that Florida springs are connected by the magnificent underground caves and rivers which make up the Floridan Aquifer. Springs miles apart are more alike than they may appear. Often called the “lifeblood of springs,” the Aquifer provides most of Florida’s drinking water and is the source of the iconic spring water so many have come to recognize and seek to experience.
According to Bill Hawthorne, an aquatic ecologist with the Florida Springs Institute, there are three main ecological challenges that Florida Springs currently face. Groundwater pumping and nitrate pollution are two of these.
Because nearly 90% of Floridians rely on pumping groundwater for their drinking, Hawthorne explained this reduces the water level in an aquifer, which then reduces the water flow in the springs that connect to it. Strong-moving waters control and prevent the overgrowth of algae.
“Algae can be very destructive to the ecosystem,” said Hawthorne said. “It limits the amount of light reaching aquatic plants, reducing the amount of photosynthesis, and can lead to mass die-offs of plants and animals. These ecosystems are replaced by a barren wasteland of algae.”
Nitrate pollution, caused by septic tank leaks, improper waste management, agriculture and an abundance of fertilizer runoff from lawns, is also a huge cause of algae growth and can be incredibly toxic to marine animals.
But the main — and possibly the most immediate — factor harming Florida’s springs is human recreation and commercialization.
“It can be devastating,” said Hawthorne.
In Apopka, Florida, Kelly Park, located inside the larger Rock Springs Run State Reserve has witnessed a change from a local hidden gem to a hot spot for both locals and tourists, with social media has playing a major role in this transformation.
“The ease of sharing pictures and videos has pushed the images of our park into social feeds around the world,” the site supervisor of Kelly Park Ronald L Yahr III wrote in an email. “Social media has helped expose more and more people to the beauty we have here.”
As more photos and videos showcasing the beauty of Kelly Park circulate, the more the park’s popularity increases.
Hawthorne explained that even the simplest things, such as visitors walking in the springs and disturbing the vegetation, can have a negative impact. Moving through the water can stir up sand and silt, which reduces water clarity and affects the amount of light reaching the plants, making it more difficult for them to photosynthesize.
Sunscreen can have the same effect, Hawthorne added. It is known to create a thin layer on the water’s surface, which also blocks the much-needed light for plants to survive. A simple switch to reef-safe sunscreen would be enough to improve the health of the springs, but the issue lies in the explosion of visitors who don’t consider these factors.
However detrimental overuse and abuse of the springs may be, the popularity and interest in Florida’s springs have only grown in the past few years. Some of it, as Hawthorne explained, could be contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and people’s want to escape their houses and get outside.
Perhaps one of the greater reasons the recreational use of springs has grown can also be attributed to human nature and the habit of sharing experiences on social media.
Social Media and Ecotourism
A simple Instagram search of “Florida springs” will populate thousands of vibrant pictures featuring the sparkling aqua waters and beautiful scenery of these not-so-hidden oases. Silver Springs, Rainbow River, Ichetucknee and many others are pictured as serene escapes from the noise of everyday life.
There are accounts across all social media platforms specifically created to showcase and share Florida springs and their locations. Influencers, deemed more significant based on their follower count, frequent beautiful areas like Florida’s springs, to maintain the aesthetics of their page and to create a “wow” factor.
People see these amazing slices of paradise and immediately want to visit, whether to enjoy the beauty or recreate the photos for themselves.
Whether it be a sneaky angle or photo editing, which is not as difficult as one may think, these pictures of paradise are hiding unappealing crowds that are actually lurking behind the lens.
Kelly Park is about 35 minutes from the heart of downtown Orlando, making it an easy spot for tourists to experience a slice of “wild Florida” after spending all week at various theme parks.
“We have groups from the UK, Germany, China, the Netherlands, Japan, Greenland, and more that visit after finding out how beautiful it is,” Yahr said. “Stories and pictures from the park have run all over the country. We have become a tourist destination on the “must-see” lists of people from around the world.”
Located on the same spring run, but on its own privately owned section, sits King’s Landing. This popular tourist destination specializes in kayak and canoe tours of the gorgeous Rock Springs run and the famous blue-green waters of the Emerald Cut.
Advertised as “Nature’s Theme Park,” it’s plain to see how easily King’s Landing would attract tourists visiting Orlando.
Even though they operate under a reservation system that limits the number of people on the spring run at a time, a busy day at King’s Landing could yield the constant clunk of kayaks bumping into each other along the narrow channel.
King’s Landing officials did not provide a response to a request for comment.
Geotagging assigns a geographical location to a photo or video through social media by way of organizing posts based on where they were taken.
Many users of social media use the geotag feature to increase engagement on their posts. If a location is tagged, anyone who searches that geotag is able to see the post. In a world where the amount of social media likes equates to popularity and importance, the use of geotags has grown dramatically.
While geotagging is beneficial for influencers across social media platforms, many people don’t realize how harmful it can be to Florida’s springs. As more and more people are exposed to the beautiful waters via social media, an influx of visitors creates the issue of overtourism. Overtourism occurs when an excessive number of tourists visit a destination and create negative effects on the local communities, animals and environment.
Florida’s springs were not the first, and certainly won’t be the last to fall prey to overtourism fueled by social media. Popular tourist destinations like Tulum, some Greek Islands, hikes out west, and many other locations, have also become victims.
For example, Arizona’s Horseshoe Bend was an unmarked dirt trail that led to an overlook showcasing the amazing rock formations and bends along the Colorado River. This specific spot has grown so rapidly in popularity that Glen Canyon National Recreation was forced to adapt to the growing crowds and plan to add a parking lot, modern viewing deck and safety railing, costing an estimated $750,000.
Visitors of these high-traffic areas have started to catalog how misleading photos of the alleged serene and breathtaking views can be under the hashtag “Instagram vs Reality.” Viewers see human traffic jams at the popular Angel’s Landing hiking trail in Zion National Park, outrageous hour-long lines for the perfect photo op at Devil’s Bridge in Sedona, and the crazy overcrowding at Horseshoe Bend, among others.
To curb the negative effects of social media, some areas around the states are adopting a generic geotag to keep specific locations more secluded.
In Wyoming, the Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board introduced the tagline “Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild,” to use as a geotag and raise awareness of the problem at hand. With two National Parks nearby, Jackson Hole has seen firsthand the damage crowding can cause to a secluded nature area. They challenge Instagram’s one billion daily users to ditch the habit of geotagging and use generic ones to keep the traffic at bay.
How We Can Help
The trend of generic geotagging has slowly started to grow, The “Tag Responsibly” tag has spread to places like Colorado. Florida’s springs even have their own, titled “Tag Responsibly, Keep the Spring State Wild.”
To mitigate the impact of humans, many Florida state parks have introduced a capacity limit in one way or another in regard to the natural springs.
“Gilchrist Blue Springs is a great example, where they have stopped people from swimming down the run, and vegetation growth has rebounded incredibly,” Hawthorne said. “The park has been conducting surveys and the data very clearly shows that with this ban of people in the water, the plant life thrives.”
Kelly Park also utilizes this method. The park allows a total of 330 cars daily. Once the park has hit that number, no one else is allowed inside.
Ronald L Yahr III praises the idea of a capacity limit.
“These numbers allow the natural flow of the water to continually cleanse the river, preventing high bacteria levels and minimizing closures to the public,” he said.
Other parks are also trying to lessen the impact. For instance, King’s Landing has introduced quarterly river clean-ups including free launches for those who bring their own vessel.
Bill Hawthorne recognizes that as social media continues to grow, so does the number of posts featuring Florida’s springs.
“Social media is a double edged sword,” he said. As more people discover the springs, the number of visitors will increase and the recreation problem will worsen. “But, as more people learn about our springs, and begin to love and appreciate them, we can hope those people will want to protect their beauty.”