From above, the Rainbow River Springs in the tiny town of Dunnellon, west of Ocala, look unreal, appearing as a shimmering watercolor mirage in the midst of a pristine, almost prehistoric, setting. Live oak and abundant shrub densely frame and reflect off crystal water that sparkles a light Caribbean-blue close to shore. As the terrain steepens and becomes rocky, the water intensifies to turquoise, cerulean, and dark navy. Below the surface, visibility seems to go on forever, providing a clear view of blue crabs, snapping turtles, and schools of sunfish as they go about their day.
Thousands of years ago, mastodon and mammoth drank from the springs that today provide sustenance and habitat for diverse wildlife including the American alligator, Florida deer, cormorant, turtles, and manatees. People—though latecomers in the history of the springs—also depend on the seemingly unlimited supply of fresh water bubbling from the state’s vast underground aquifer as a source of drinking water and a playground for snorkeling, kayaking, swimming, and scuba diving. But few understand the lurking dangers threatening the health and beauty of the state’s 1,000-plus artesian springs.
In a relatively short amount of time, chemical runoff and over-pumping have poisoned some of the springs, rendering them dank, drained pools of algae and muck. The remaining healthier sites are on the same course, according to Brent Fannin, a passionate advocate of the springs and recipient of the inaugural $25,000 Natural Florida Film Grant awarded by the newly formed Project Paradise Film Fund, a Palm Beach nonprofit working in conjunction with the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties and Kilo Content production company.
Fannin, a resident of Gainesville and frequent visitor to all of the state’s springs, is direct in his pitch to preserve the precious ecosystem. When viewers watch his 10-minute documentary, entitled The Water State, he wants them to “cry, freak out, and be moved to action.” One of the words he focuses on in the film is “extinct,” he adds, “because that’s what will happen to these springs and our drinking water will be gone. We’ve been abusing our national resources and we will feel the consequences.”
Human development is the primary cause of the destruction of the springs, according to a report by the nonprofit Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, which is dedicated to documenting the health of the springs and educating the public. The report notes that while the flow rate, mineral content, and geography of the springs varies from region to region, nearly all the sites are suffering from impacts related to development and increased pollution. The potential damage affects 53 counties and more than 42,000 miles.
Fannin created his own nonprofit, Keepers of the Springs, in 2019 with his friend, David Cobiella, to organize clean-up efforts at the springs. He believes his documentary is another avenue to further increase public awareness statewide. “The first time I saw the springs, I was blown away by how beautiful they are,” he says. “Whenever I take people there, I ask them if they know that Florida has the highest concentration of freshwater springs in the world, and 90 to 95 percent have no idea.”
But this interesting fact aside, Fannin says it’s more important to understand that the springs are an indicator of the health of the aquifers, the source of 90 percent of our drinking water. Telling the story through a visual medium like a documentary allows visitors to see the stunning beauty of this necessary resource, as well as the effects of human abuse.
Project Paradise Film Fund is the brainchild of Palm Beach native Kent Anderson. After working with GEOS Foundation to produce a short film in Mozambique about rhinoceros counter-poaching operations, he began thinking about pairing his skills in filmmaking with philanthropy and conservation.
“When I met with this group of like-minded individuals here in Palm Beach [including sister Bettina Anderson], I realized we have our own conservation needs and stories in our backyard that need to be told,” Anderson says. “I pitched the idea to do these film grants and we started Project Paradise.”
The eight members of the film fund committee jointly select the winning stories they think will make the most effective documentaries highlighting the state’s environmental concerns. Together, they narrowed down the initial 60 submissions for the inaugural grant. “It was close,” says Anderson. “We had so many great pitches and we hope these applicants will apply again because we want to eventually produce several films a year.”
A few factors tipped the scale in Fannin’s favor. “It was achievable,” Anderson notes, because it didn’t involve waiting for a particular season or hunting for a rare species. But it was the strength of Fannin’s conviction that stood out in the final group of five finalists. “He was very passionate and knowledgeable and had a clear vision about what he wanted to do,” Anderson says. “He also had a fantastic story.”
Kilo Content, founded by Anderson and his partner (and now wife) Samantha Cerny, provided production assistance, but Fannin wrote the script and directed the documentary. He also tapped Gainesville freelance underwater cinematographer and photographer Tessa Skiles to film it. She served as director of photography and operated the camera for all of the underwater shots, while Palm Beacher Will Fritz operated the camera for above-ground shots. With the team complete, they set out for a marathon three-day session last December, visiting and filming at 10 of the state’s springs, ranging from relatively healthy to what Fannin calls “dead.”
Skiles went into each spring, opting to free dive instead of using scuba gear for two reasons. First, traveling without gear meant the team could move quickly without encumbrances. Second, free diving creates a smaller underwater profile, so there is less risk of disturbing the wildlife. In the healthier springs, Skiles says she saw incredible biodiversity. But appearances are deceiving. “Just because the water is clear doesn’t mean it’s good quality,” she adds. Nitrogen and other unseen chemicals are still present. Sometimes, Skiles says, she emerged “very itchy” after being underwater. “I also got an ear infection that I still haven’t recovered from.” A few of the springs were downright nasty. “Methane gas is trapped underneath the layers of mud and algae, and the smell is unbelievable,” she says.
Skiles has her own history with conservation, something she says she was born to do. Her father, renowned underwater cinematographer and photographer Wes Skiles, was filming bull sharks for National Geographic in 2010 off the coast of Boynton Beach when he was found dead on the reef. “From a very young age, I had the drive to educate people about the environment,” she says. “When my father died, I was 17 and the need to carry on his legacy increased; it fueled the fire.” She reinstated her father’s production company, Karst, and now operates it as her own.
Equally passionate about the worsening condition of the springs, she and Fannin agree that change ultimately has to come from state government and voters need to make their voice heard at the ballot box. “I would love the governor to see this,” Fannin says. “I’d be honored if state representatives took 10 minutes to watch it. If it doesn’t move them, then I either didn’t do my job or they have hearts of steel.”
Anderson plans to debut the documentary at a screening in Palm Beach, followed by several screenings around the state. “When we have more films, I’d love to have a film festival in Palm Beach,” he says. Beyond that, he will help Fannin distribute and promote the film via YouTube, social media, and other film festivals and also make it available on the Project Paradise Film Fund YouTube channel. “We’re not trying to make money. We’re just trying to get as many eyes as possible on the film,” he adds. “Eventually, we want to tell hundreds of short stories to provide a bigger picture of what’s going on in the state.”
Short documentaries are the most effective way to accomplish this, Anderson believes, because people don’t want to take the time to watch longer educational films. “If you can’t make your point in 10 minutes, you risk losing people’s interest.”
Anderson, Fannin, and Skiles are not blind to the fact that Florida development has been fast-tracked for decades and the state’s population only continues to grow, presenting them with an uphill battle against corporate interests and profit. But they believe improved farming methods, along with individual and corporate responsibility are all possible. “I’m putting all my heart and soul into this,” Fannin says. “2022 is our opportunity because it’s an insanely big voting year in the state.”
Promoting public awareness through education is a start, Anderson says, but ultimately seeing is believing. He hopes the powerful and direct message of the documentary will inspire people to do just that. “For people who have never been to the springs, I hope they go, because if you see them, you want to preserve them.”