Manatees up close: Homosassa Springs State Park

Wild Ways

I had forgotten what a thrill it is to see scores of wild manatees up close. It’s been ages since I’ve traveled to a Florida freshwater spring in winter, when the manatees from all over Florida congregate in the warmish spring waters during cold spells.

This time, I wasn’t really thinking much about manatees when I visited Homosassa Springs State Park with three gal friends. I remember going to this attraction years ago, but not in the winter. I was eager to see the zoo exhibits that I remembered and to take the scenic boat ride along the spring.

The boat ride was fun, yes. The animal exhibits were spacious and well-furnished, and the animals were healthy, active and well-tended. All this was good enough. But the manatees, that’s what really blew me away. They were everywhere!

When we first got to the park, we took the shuttle directly to the main exhibit area and spent an hour or so wandering in front of the animal enclosures. We watched a pair of roseate spoonbills squabbling over nesting material while ducks swam below in a large walk-through aviary. Nearby, a group of rehabbed but un-releasable pelicans were hard at work warming their eggs in a rookery set up for them by park staff. Elsewhere, other native animals, including a Florida panther, a bear, foxes, hawks, eagles and flamingos, were displayed in ample enclosures with plenty of natural vegetation and play toys to keep them company. Most of the staff in the park were volunteers who seemed to enjoy the zookeeper duties that fell to them.

At the park, we joined a group admiring Lu the hippo, a retired “animal star” who was trained by Ivan Tors back in the 1960s. Lu is now quite possibly the oldest hippo in captivity, having just celebrated his 57th birthday. He’s got lots of followers who have watched him over the years. As we looked on, one repeat visitor called out to him, and he answered in his deep voice. He obviously is used to the adoration of his fans.

I thought I had seen the best part of all – for me anyway – when I lingered by the river otter enclosure. It was close to feeding time, judging from the otters’ attention to the door where the keepers feed them. I watched in delight as one ran at a full gallop across the exhibit – something rarely seen in captivity, where often they are not given enough land area to really run. Amazingly, I even got a photo!

But all this paled in significance to the sight just around the corner. Manatees in the wild! Scores of them! We stood transfixed on a boardwalk that crossed the spring and watched the action, although actually, resting manatees are not very active at all. But it was still fun to look at the wild mammals close up from our vantage point. Near us, a mother manatee nursed a large calf lying beside her, well-positioned to take advantage of the teats in her “armpits.” A bit farther away, we noticed with sadness the propeller scars on the backs of a number of manatees, marking their collisions with boats. Right next to us, one manatee surfaced, another great photo op.

Although we didn’t have the time or inclination to participate in a “snorkeling with the manatees” trip, we watched one underway, with wet-suited swimmers bobbing on the surface using floating noodles as support. Nearby, a park volunteer patrolled the area by kayak, making sure that the manatees approached the swimmers and not vice versa.

Other recreational opportunities abounded, too. A bit farther downstream was a boat ramp where kayakers with their own craft or as part of a tour could launch their kayaks and float with the manatees, too. Coincidently, another Florida friend of mine kayaked at Homosassa Springs a day after we were there and reported an exceptional kayak experience, being followed by a group of manatees for a half-mile down the stream.

You can sometimes see wild manatees at our own marina in Fernandina Beach, but only in warm summer months, and they are most often seen individually. But if you, too, want to see lots of manatees in Florida, the time is now, while the ocean temperature remains too cool for these animals and they congregate in the springs.

Homosassa Springs is just one of many locations to find them in winter. Closer to home, Blue Springs also offers lots of manatees, and a quick Google search for “Florida manatees in springs” will yield more places. It’s a Florida experience not to be missed, but you had better hurry. Warm water is just around the corner, and the manatees will soon disperse.

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. 



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