Jenny Adler Dives into Florida’s Aquifers and Springs to Help Protect Them

As a biologist doing fieldwork, Jennifer Adler fell in love with Florida’s beautiful freshwater springs and the aquifer — water found in the rocks underground — that supply Florida’s drinking water. Now, as she finishes up her PhD, Jenny is using underwater photography to help people understand their connection to their drinking water and document how pollution and overuse are damaging the spring ecosystems.

We asked Jenny to create a 360-degree image to help illustrate what’s happening in Florida and how our choices affect the Earth. Her piece takes us underwater to witness the contrasts between a healthy spring and an impaired one.

We sat down to talk to Jenny about her work, her outreach to kids, and how she combines science, art and a passion for the environment.

How did you get involved with protecting the water in Florida?

When I moved to Gainesville, Florida a few years ago to work for the U.S. Geological Survey, a fellow biologist suggested I check out the springs. It was the clearest water I’d ever seen in my life, and the second I looked beneath the surface, I was hooked. Later on, I was doing fieldwork on sturgeon — these big, prehistoric-looking fish — and at the end of the day we’d jump in the springs to cool off. I started taking pictures to share what I saw beneath the surface. Over time I started seeing that these places I’d fallen in love with were in trouble and began using my camera to document how these ecosystems are changing.

Many people don’t realize that the springs are direct connections to the aquifer, which is where more than 92 percent of people in Florida get their water.

Tell us more about what’s happening with the aquifers and springs in Florida.

About 30 years ago, the springs were filled with flowing native grasses and vegetation, and these grasses support healthy ecosystems. The vegetation provides important habitat for fish and snails as well as an important food source for turtles and manatees — it’s a whole ecosystem that reflects the healthy, clean water coming up from the aquifer. But now, a lot of these springs are covered in algae, which has displaced the native vegetation. Instead of seeing lush, green, beautiful ecosystems, you see brown or green algae covering almost everything. The health of the springs is an indicator of how healthy the aquifer is, so this algae is not a good sign.

If you haven’t seen a spring before, it may still look beautiful, but to an ecologist, or someone who has lived in Florida for many years, it’s horrifying. We know how different it used to be, and how quickly it has changed. That’s why I’ve been working to tell this part of the story, to use pictures to help people see for themselves that the springs and aquifers are threatened and how their everyday actions affect the water beneath their feet.

You put together an education program for fifth graders. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

In fifth grade, students learn about the water cycle, but there’s no statewide standard in Florida that says students need to learn about our unique freshwater resources here in Florida. We literally live our lives on top of our water, and what we do on the surface can have huge impacts on what’s underneath our feet, but kids don’t necessarily learn about that. In the program, called Walking on Water, we take kids out and let them swim in their drinking water, and we ask them to capture it from their own perspective with a camera. It gives them an opportunity to explore without being spoon-fed the issues.

Their reactions have almost brought tears to my eyes. A lot of them haven’t had an opportunity to see a spring before and they are so excited to be there. Every single one of the kids thus far has swam in the water with a camera. It has been an incredible experience so far and has really demonstrated the promise of hands-on, immersive learning.

How did you capture the 360-degree Earth Day image you created for us?

To shoot the pictures, I had my camera, a DSLR, in an underwater housing, and it has a fisheye lens so it can capture a 180-degree field of view. I put it in portrait mode, which captures 180 degrees from top to bottom, then mounted it onto a tripod and took six to eight pictures in a circle. Then I took one photo toward the sky and one photo toward the bottom, so you can see the full 360-degree view. Back on the computer I stitched it together, and the end result gives you the feeling that you are immersed in the spring.

What do you want people to come away with after they see your image?

One half of the image is the Ichetucknee Headspring, where water comes out of the aquifer and begins a six-mile spring-fed river. The entire river is crystal clear, and although it has changed, it looks relatively good in many places. The other half is Silver Glen Springs, which is pretty impaired and mostly smothered in algae. I’m showing the stark contrast between the healthy and the unhealthy springs. As with a lot of my images, I hope people will see it and part of them will fall in love with this place and want to know more. But I also hope there’s a raw emotional response, a gut reaction saying ‘Why does it look like that? And what can I do to help?’

With photos, you don’t have to tell people everything. They can look and see that something’s wrong. I hope people will see my photographs, and even if they don’t usually follow science and environmental issues, they’ll want to investigate and learn more. I hope people will get involved because it’s our own drinking water that we’re impacting, and water is our most vital resource, it connects all of us.

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