Meeteetse, WY. Winnemucca, NV. Joining our list of difficult to pronounce destinations is Homosassa Springs, Florida. It is well worth the effort to learn the “Homo-saw-saw” pronunciation, for it is the home of Ellie Shciller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Manatees can be seen every day of the year in a natural setting of blue-green spring waters. A glass walled observation station is also available to watch these gentle giants feed underwater an arm’s length away. Beyond manatees, the site offers an outstanding wildlife park and recreational opportunities. The 150 acre park’s rural setting is an easy 90 minute drive west of Orlando. The admission charge ($13pp) includes an informative pontoon boat tour led by a park ranger, as well a return trip in the park’s trolley (ie – service trailer).
We started our visit at the manatee educational program. This half hour long talk (check website for schedule) includes interesting information about the manatee as well as feeding that brings the resident aquatic mammals out in all their glory. The program does not include seeing manatees jump out of the water or give rides to trainers. While these cute creatures would not win a traditional beauty contest or a sprint, it is heart warming to see them feed on lettuce and purposefully move about. West Indian manatees have a very low tolerance of cold water. One Floridian cold snap in 2010 resulted in at least 100 deaths. Water below 68 degrees Fahrenheit can be fatal.
Manatees congregate in large numbers during the winter months in areas with warmer natural springs. They have also learned to enjoy the warm water discharged from power plants. In January and December it can be possible to see hundreds of manatees in one location, but in the warm months they head out to quieter areas. The Offpeakers have made a mental note to return to central Florida in the winter to see the congregation and perhaps even snorkel with these cuties. Homosassa’s center takes care of manatees that are found injured. Those that cannot be returned to nature become permanent residents. Manatees (or Sea Cow) average 10 feet in length and 1,000 pounds. Large individuals can be 13 feet and 3,000 pounds. Manatees, whose closest relative is the elephant, are concentrated in Florida but in warmer months they can range as far west as Louisiana and as far north as Virginia and the Carolinas. Boat strikes, prop injuries, net entanglements and loss of habitat are the biggest dangers to the creature beyond cold weather. Manatees can stay under water for three to five minutes. From above, the Sea Cows look more like large mushrooms unless it is dinner time. The underwater observatory gave excellent views of the face and flippers during feeding time as well as the other aquatic life inhabiting the Springs.
Once you tear yourself away from the manatees, keep your camera out. Follow the scenic path to see alligators, Key and Whitetail deer, a reptile house, wild cats, and a black bear. Bird aviaries with areas for shore birds and birds of prey were among our favorite sections. So many varieties of birds that we normally can only see from afar: Roseate Spoonbills, Royal Egrets, Green Heron, Blue Heron, Wood stork, Cinnamon Duck, Hawks, Eagles and more. Here we saw our first Great White, Peruvian and Pink Backed Pelicans sharing a beautiful area with the noisy and colorful flamingos. It was thrilling to see the striking and brightly colored male wood ducks swimming in Pepper Creek that flows along the trail.
Further displays provided excellent views of river otters, red fox, and Lu, the resident hippopotamus. Lu is a hold over from an earlier era when the park was privately owned. Once the state purchased the area, efforts were made to relocate Lu as this was to be a facility for Florida species only. Local residents who had grown up visiting Lu were up in arms. Florida’s governor stepped in, declaring Lu an honorary citizen. Thirty years later, he is still enjoying his beautiful pool and many admiring fans.
The park IS in superb order with large living areas for the wildlife, lush landscaping, shady pathways, and helpful enthusiastic volunteers to enhance the visit. One of our favorite volunteers was Barbara, a retired principal whose dynamic energy lights up the Park’s Discovery Center. Here is much more information on the Park’s history and on Manatees including a skeleton. Barbara welcomed and informed us about Homosassa Springs. This interesting lady is also an accomplished children’s book author who has an exciting mystery novel on the verge of publication! People like Barbara make it possible for the rest of us to drop in to these special places and have these fantastic experiences. Thank you Barbara and your colleagues! This park is a treasure. The animals seem happy and well cared for, the staff and volunteers are happy which results in a happy visit for all! A big thanks to our Panama City friends for another super recommendation.
On our way out, we encountered a six foot yellow rat snake on the sidewalk. My brave husband happily posed beside it not knowing whether it was venomous or not, THAT is true love or maybe FEAR? Whatever it is, it gave us one more great photo in a day full of interesting scenes. How about you, have you seen the manatees or enjoyed another wildlife park? Has your spouse sent you to pose with the snake? Share with us in the comments below.