When you start casually researching freshwater dive sites in Florida, there are two superstars that are going to come up over and over again: Blue Grotto and Devil’s Den. After hearing so much buzz, we couldn’t wait to give them a glance for ourselves!
Conveniently located five minutes down the road from each other in the tiny town of Williston, Florida, these two sites made up the third day of our Sunshine State Scuba road trip.
Unlike the state and county parks we’d visited thus far, these two dive sites are privately owned and thus come with heftier price tags to dive. But, they really are spectacular, have impressive onsite amenities, and both provide an incredible value of bubbles for your buck.
Plus, a trip to Williston is a fascinating look at small town life in Florida. At less than 2,800 residents, Williston is too small to qualify for even a ubiquitous Wal-Mart… though fear not, there is a McDonald’s in town. We rolled into our campsite at Blue Grotto just as the sun was setting after our day of freediving with manatees and scuba diving the Rainbow River, and had giddily purchased firewood in anticipation of a campfire and s’mores that night. We had just enough light to run down to the grotto, gasp at its natural beauty, and make friends with the resident Virgil the Turtle.
Thankfully, we were rescued for the night from our power-less, gas-less and water-less trailer (which was, at this point, an extremely expensive closet-on-wheels) by our new friend Forrest Simon of Go Native Freediving, who, when he isn’t traveling the world to teach, leads expert freediving courses right out of Blue Grotto. Forrest let us crash in his cabin and use his kitchen to make Heather’s famous veggie and black bean quesadillas.
We may have stayed up so late talking that we didn’t even come close to entering the water at our expected dive time the next morning. But the nice thing about a day of diving in Williston is there was no rush.
Why? Because we’d followed the most important rule of having a killer day of diving at Blue Grotto or Devil’s Den — we avoided the weekends! Again, these are two of the most popular fresh water dive sites in Florida, and they both are made up of confined cavern spaces. You really do not want to be sharing them with too many people.
Mid week, we only saw two other groups of divers and both were out of the water by the time we got in. (Maybe sleeping in and going to one of Williston’s atmospheric diners from breakfast wasn’t such a bad move.)
After signing some paperwork at the Blue Grotto dive shop, we were shown a briefing video, a popular move at many privately owned caverns and sinkholes around Florida. While, unusually, there is an onsite divemaster who can provide guided dives of the cavern or cave (the only dive site we visited our entire trip that had one), most divers go in unaccompanied in buddy groups.
Next we picked up our tanks, geared up at one of the pavilions, and hit the water.
Blue Grotto’s setup is organized, efficient, and spotlessly clean — I wasn’t surprised in the slightest when I met the German manager.
Everyone I spoke to told me to dive Blue Grotto before Devil’s Den and by the end of the day, I understood why — Devil’s Den is so visually arresting it’s pretty hard to top.
But Blue Grotto has so many cool features, there really is tons to keep your attention here. Stop and have a quick chat in the air bell, feed Virgil the turtle-and-fish-safe food sold in the dive shop, do a loop around the circular cavern that dips down to 100 feet, or have a seat on one of the underwater training platforms. See a charming and hand drawn map of the dive site here.
As we dropped in, I was in awe at the enormous size of the initial cavern room. Heading deeper into the cavern, we picked up the guideline and turned on our lights.
heather’s dive bubbles forming a heart! <3
The permanent guide-line and artificial lighting inside the cavern were excellent safety features, but I still wouldn’t consider going back into the depths of the cavern without your own dive lights and a general sense of comfort with being in confined overhead environments. It was essentially an enormous, deep, oversized swim-through!
Coming out of the deep cavern loop, we were momentarily dumbstruck by watching our air bubbles run of the underside of the limestone ceiling. We popped into the fresh air bell at 30 feet to discuss, a novelty that remains safe as the air is supplied by a compressor — so no worries about built-up CO2 levels like you’d have in a natural air bubble.
It’s always so surreal to stop and have a chat mid-dive! Due to the clear plexiglass windows of the bell, we could watch Forrest swimming around us even while we were chatting — how cool is that? Unfortunately there are no photos of it in this post, but stay tuned for the video I’m posting in my wrap-up post.
Still, I think my favorite part of the dive may have been interacting with the hungry fish and cuddly turtle. Normally, I’d object to a dive operator feeding wildlife, but considering the confined environment here and the constant exposure to divers, there’s no harm. I was squealing into my reg with joy when Virgil came over to me!
My biggest regret? Not buying a “I Dove With Virgil The Turtle” t-shirt from the dive shop.
So while at this point Heather and I were fully Cavern Certified divers, only an Open Water Certification is required to enter Blue Grotto. However, Open Water divers are only certified to dive to about 60 feet, and Blue Grotto reaches around 100. So to fully enjoy the entirety of the cavern, I’d recommend being Advanced Open Water or even better, Cavern Certified.
Blue Grotto also has a cave system, which you must be fully Cave Certified to enter. Just to refresh, both caverns and caves involve overhead environments, but in cavern diving you can always see a natural light source. A cavern is typically the initial room of an underwater a cave, illuminated at least in part by daylight — though the cavern at Blue Grotto is also illuminated by artificial lights, too.
When it comes to surface intervals, Blue Grotto has it made. Not only do they have hot showers in the bath house, they’ve also got picnic tables and BBQs for you to make a whole day out of it. We had planned to check out Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens during our surface interval, but due to our late start for the day decided to save it for another trip.
Blue Grotto was by far the simplest and most beginner friendly of any of the dive sites we visited in Florida. Still, if you’re feeling at all skittish or uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to hire the onsite divemaster. An extra $30 is worth your peace of mind — and then you’ll be familiar with the site for next time!
The shop was also the most well-equipped. Not only do they offer full gear rental facilities including nitrox tank fills, they also offer a full dive school with a pool, guided dives and training courses. No snorkelers or swimmers are allowed here unless accompanied by divers, which is nice as the site already gets super crowded with students and fun divers. Again, I emphasize: if possible, skip this one on the weekends.
Admission to Blue Grotto is $45 per day (plus $8 for an airfill or $12 for a full tank rental), which allows you to dive the site as many times as your little heart desires till closing. Since my new mask was fogging up and giving me trouble during our first dive, I actually would have loved to have stuck around for a second. However, we had places to go and other dive sites to dive.
We made it to Devil’s Den right before the cut-off for the last divers of the day. Again, our signature tardiness worked in our favor — aside from two snorkelers who left half-way through our dive, we had the place entirely to ourselves.
After an oral briefing from the charming British manager, we geared up and descended into the earth.
And what we found down there… it was so perfect it was hard to believe it was carved by nature and not the set designer on a big budget action film.
Devil’s Den got its name from smoke-like steam rising up through the opening in the ceiling of the den cool days. At only 54 feet of maximum depth, it’s a small dive site, but with plenty of swim-throughs, air pockets, oversized catfish and prehistoric fossils to keep divers occupied.
Legend dictates that the cavern was first discovered when a local farmer complained that his cows were going missing. Suspecting a cattle rustler, the farmer camped out overnight to catch the thief in action. Instead, he watched in horror as his cows seemed to disappear right into the earth. Later, when the small tunnel to the cavern was created, they plucked plenty of cattle skeletons from its depths. Today, the bones are long gone, but the eerie atmosphere remains.
The dive briefing had described Devil’s Den to us like an inverted mushroom. As we pushed away from the wet platform at the center of the den, we descended down into its crevasses. There, around the edges, we found makeshift grates tied together from pvc pipes and rusted steel to kept divers from going deeper — there’s no cave diving allowed here.
Poking around through the otherworldly cavern, we never found Nelson, the onsite turtle, though we did have spooky encounters with a few of the enormous — seriously, they took my breath away — catfish, who flicked ominously deep within the caves when we shone our lights through the grates. Other residents of Devil’s Den include guppies, crappie and catfish.
We were pretty fascinated to hear there were fossils from Devil’s Den dating back to the Pleistocene Age on display at The University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida in Gainesville — with plenty left behind for divers to enjoy. Unfortunately, we could never find them… though it gives us something to look for next time.
What an actual prehistoric adventure!
While short and sweet, this was one of the most atmospheric and unique dives of my life, owing much to the “wow” factor from the moment you walk into the den. Seriously, I’d seen photos but… the real thing blew me away. Once submerged, it feels like a night dive regardless of the time of day.
Devil’s Den admission costs $38 (plus $8 for an airfill or $12 for a full tank rental) and like at Blue Grotto, it allows you to dive your face off for the duration of the day. There is no onsite school or instructor though there is a pool so independent instructors and outside dive schools do bring student groups here. That, combined with the fact that snorkeling is allowed, can add up to multi-hour waits over the weekend (though there is a food truck onsite then to distract you.) There is a rental counter with a full range of gear, though no nitrox is available. Like at Blue Grotto, you can also arrange night diving here after-hours.
Compared to the price of springs and caverns on state and county land, diving these two privately owned sites adds up — it’s going to be at least $100 to do both in a day (unless you’re a dive pro, in which case you can rack up serious discounts — stay tuned for my final wrap up post for all those details, tips and tricks!) However, the trade-off is having access to facilities like onsite air fills, briefings, gear rental, hot showers, gear set-up stations and beyond. Both facilities are also open seven days a week, but check their websites for opening times which can vary by season and day of the week.
Williston is such a small town the nearest hotels are about forty minutes away. Luckily both Blue Grotto and Devil’s Den offer onsite accommodation in the form of cabins, RV sites and camping. We stayed onsite at Blue Grotto where the cabins were clean and efficient and come highly recommended. The camping facilities on the other hand are limited and sites are essentially just the spaces between cabins so don’t expect much privacy or wilderness feel. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to check out the accommodation at Devil’s Den to compare but what I gathered from my research is that Blue Grotto should be your first choice if you want to rent a cabin, while Devil’s Den is slightly more charming if you plan to camp.
Regardless of where you spend the night, there’s no question — it would be a real feat to have a bad day of diving in Williston, Florida.
Next up: The crystal clear waters of Ginnie Springs!
IRMA UPDATE: Blue Grotto was blessed to avoid Hurricane Irma’s wrath aside from a few downed trees and a few days of lost power. Devil’s Den lost their camping sites with power but are offering a primitive camping site option for the interim. Go take advantage of the lower crowds and offer them your support!
Many thanks to Devil’s Den for hosting us, and to Heather and Simon for all photos in this post that have me in them!