With over a 3 hour drive from Alafia SP and our next destination, Manatee Springs SP, I wanted to visit Crystal River (about half way) an area famous for it's manatees. After reading our guide book, I decided on Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park instead. First of all, it was closer and if we didn't like the options we could still get to Crystal River. Secondly, the guide book said that Homosassa has an underwater observatory for viewing the manatees if they are in.
Entering the park was difficult coming from the south with a trailer. Left turn on a busy two lane (each way) state highway without a turning lane. So we went past, made a u-turn at the next street corner in a shopping mall. Back to the entrance of the park, I quickly feared we were in trouble. A small parking lot (about six lanes) with cars parked on the outside edges made turning inside the lot nearly impossible. Sandy was sighing in exasperation. I took a left turn and a right, planning to get to the outside edge of the back of the lot. Once there, I saw I could not possible navigate past the lane I was in. I looked behind me and there was an opening a car width wide into an open field. With a couple 3-point turns, I managed to back into the opening. A park ranger came by in his golf cart and said we were in an overflow lot and that we could park there as long as we didn't block the drive. Another 3-point turn backwards set me up for leaving without being blocked in. Wow! I'm thinking I hope this park is worth it.
I asked the park ranger at the register told us what there was to do and we immediately decided to stay. She said there were two ways to get into the park – either a tram or a 20 minute boat ride, which she recommended. Her argument is that manatees sightings are unreliable at any of the local springs, but at this park they have many other different animals to view as this park is a rehabilitation center in a zoo like setting. We found out later by our boat guide that this was a zoo at one time that the federal government bought for it's current purpose.
She also told us that we have an opportunity to see Lu – their 58 year old hippo. They got Lu when he was 4 years old (born in the San Diego Zoo). He was in the TV show Daktari in the 1960's! She said that this cold winter has been harsh on him, and he may not make it through another year. She said, “If I say any more, I'll start to cry”.
The boat ride was fun as the volunteer gave us a good history of the park and slowed to look at many many turtles, an osprey, a wood duck and the now routine alligator. He said the state tree is a Sabal Palm, colloquially called a cabbage palm because the center is edible and tastes like cabbage. He also said the male wood ducks (like many animal species) are more colorful than the females as a means to protect their young. While the males try to attract and distract prey with their flamboyant color, the females can hide with the young in their more camouflaged coloring.
Let's cut to the chase (finally) and describe what we saw!
The small underwater observatory was actually pretty neat (although everything in the park looked old). While there were no manatees, there were two large schools of fish. The smaller variety were continuously swimming as a school in a circular pattern around the spring. The other predominant species were snook, who just seemed to linger in place. Some of these were 2-3 feet long.
They have a gated area in the river where they take care of manatees. We saw several that were much larger than any I had ever seen before. One that I got a good look at had a tale the size of our table in the trailer – about 3 feet wide. I would guess between 8-10 feet long and about 3 feet diameter.
We then be-lined it to see Lu. He was huddled in a corner ¾ submerged in water, but it was really cool to see him. There were numerous alligators within the park, most of which looked like they already passed away. However the rest of the park was really fun and interesting. We saw many animals that we had never seen before including: a florida cougar, florida black bear, a red wolf (looked like a Siberian husky to me), a river otter swimming, white tail deer, a fox, a bobcat, and many, many birds. Maybe too many. The odor (I'm being kind) was quite strong in places. There were snowy egrets; great egret; white heron; blue heron; vultures; brown and white pelicans; barn, barred, burrowing, and great horned owls; roseate spoonbills, whooping cranes, flamingos, storks, and bald eagles. Whew!
Lu the hippo.
While pelicans are commonplace in the south, we still saw something new. There was a little island with several pelicans in stick nests. Each nest had a female sitting in the center of the nest, with a male sitting close beside. One couple kept our attention. The male would fly off and pick up a stick and bring it back to the nest. He would present it to the female who grabbed one end. Together they would turn it, drop it, pick it up and place it in the nest. We saw this twice while we were there.
Here are a few photos of the other birds and animals we saw.
With a good 1 ½ hours travel time left to go, we headed back to the car at 3:15. Getting out of the overflow parking took more skill than getting in. A really tight turn with trees to the right and cars in front and to the left. At the “right-turn only” exit onto Route 19, we went south and turned around in a commercial lot behind the McDonald's to utilize the traffic light and head north.