SAN MARCOS, Texas (KXAN) — The springs that once played host to an underwater theme park are now protected, and the group leading conservation efforts at Spring Lake is offering an up-close view of the area’s ecology.

The springs that form Spring Lake, the headwaters of the San Marcos River, host a variety of endangered species, including the Texas blind salamander.

The health of the springs has a direct impact downstream on popular tubing and swimming spots.

This popular tubing and swimming spot on the San Marcos River would not exist without healthy springs. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

“We’re trying to teach how to be good stewards of their environment, of where they live,” said Miranda Wait, deputy director of Spring Lake operations for the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment.

The center is a Texas State University research organization that works to protect the area.

To that end, the Meadows Center is now offering Splash into Science snorkel tours of the protected waters. Happening every weekend in October, and perhaps longer depending on the weather, the tours immerse visitors — literally — in the lake’s ecology.

“You are in the experience instead of on top of the experience,” Wait said.

Register for one of the remaining weekend tours here. The snorkel tours, available to anyone 12 years or older who can pass a swim test. The cost is $45 per person, and that includes snorkel gear, a wet suit, and a life jacket.

Commitment to conservation

The springs that create the San Marcos River bubble up from the Edwards Aquifer, which provides drinking water for more than 1.7 million central Texans.

Before it was protected, though, Spring Lake was called Aquarena Springs, an underwater theme park featuring mermaid shows and the ever-popular Ralph the swimming pig.

It remained a popular tourist attraction from the 1960s until it stopped operations in the ’90s.

That’s how Matt Danielson remembers experiencing the lake. A student at the school, then called Southwest Texas State University, he and his friends would sneak into the lake after dark in the late 1970s.

“We never did anything malicious,” he said, “but we just went swimming.”

Wednesday, Danielson and his wife, Marty, brought their grandchildren, Noah and Lucy Axtell, to the lake for a glass-bottom boat tour. The boats have been running on the water since the 1940s.

Matt Danielson watches the lake pass by on a glass-bottom boat tour run by Texas State University’s Meadows Center. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

Looking down into the crystal-clear water, the family watched turtles and a rare spotted gar swim above the sand bubbling up from the aquifer below.

“The last boat tour I was on was a ferry in New York City during a school field trip, and I could not see anything in the water,” Noah said as he gazed into the water below. “This is way better than that.”

The university bought the lake and surrounding land in 1994 and started removing the underwater theater and other relics of the theme park in 2012 to restore the habitat.

“I think the springs on a whole look more natural, better,” Danielson said. “There’s not a bit of trash in here anymore.”

Swimming and recreational snorkeling and scuba diving are prohibited in the springs, so the glass-bottom boats and nature trails surrounding the water were the only ways for the public to access the area until the creation of the snorkeling program.

The future of Spring Lake

A Texas blind salamander lives in the Meadows Center’s Discovery Hall to educate visitors about the endangered species that live in Spring Lake. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

Since the Meadows Center quietly launched the snorkel program this summer, about 300 people have taken part, plus another 300 kids as part of summer camps.

The Meadows Center plans to expand its offerings in the spring to include a more advanced snorkeling course (for which the beginner course will be a prerequisite), as well as spotlight tours at night using underwater flashlights.

The center is also working to refurbish all of its glass-bottom boats, replacing the fiberglass hulls to prolong the lives of the 70-year-old watercraft. Three of the boats already have new hulls, at a cost of $150,000 apiece, and the university is soliciting donations for the remaining two.

The oldest glass-bottom boat in the university’s fleet is from 1945, and the newest is from 1978. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

With 125,000 annual visitors to the lake, about a quarter of whom are children, Wait hopes they can encourage people to care more about water and how it impacts every aspect of their lives.

“They get a really up-close and personal look at really why conserving water is important,” she said.

Danielson plans to come back to give his grandson that personal perspective. “I can’t scuba dive,” he said, “but I can snorkel.”

“This is a very interesting place to go,” he added. “What a wonderful place it is to have in central Texas.”