All Florida’s Creatures…Plus a Hippo! Florida is well-known for many things. Sometimes we get a bad rep, but for the most part we are home to some pretty awesome and unique stuff. It’s hard to travel across the state without seeing at least an image of a West Indian manatee, or if you’re lucky, spotting one in person. Plenty of Central Florida’s springs are home to hundreds of manatees, especially in the colder months when they flock to the consistent temperatures of the natural water.
One spring in particular is home to the sea cows year-round, and offers an incredible up-close and personal view of Florida’s favorite pudgy mascot.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park has been a hot tourist attraction since the 1880s thanks to the cool waters offering an escape from the sweltering temperatures. In the 1940s, a floating iron tank with small windows was installed to get an underwater view while staying dry, and the park really took off from there.
Since then, the small tank has expanded to a floating observatory with large windows on all sides. Guests can head under the waterline to get an amazing view of the spring’s landscape, countless fish swimming by and most excitingly, the resident manatees. Since the state park is a sanctuary, it is home to injured and rehabilitating manatees that can be viewed both above and below the water.
Currently, there are three taking up residence that are unable to be released to the wild. In the winter months, the staff opens a series of gates allowing wild manatees to make the warm spring there home for a cuddly, winter snugglefest while the rehabilitating manatees are moved to a special area for their protection.
If you visit at this time, you can peek in on around 70 to 80 manatees at peak times underwater or check in on the locals in their area and learn more about them with daily programs. The manatees are fed copious amounts of lettuce at regularly scheduled times each day at the observatory to ensure a great view for guests.
While the manatees are certainly the stars of the show at this park, they aren’t the only wildlife calling it their home. With countless native Florida species (plus a hippo) it’s easy to spend an entire day exploring this park.
Most of the birds and animals that call this park home are unable to survive in the wild. Homosassa Springs has incorporated the natural landscape into the layout of the park and essentially created an all-Florida, all-natural zoo around the spring. Guests can stroll along boardwalks throughout the 210-acre park and pass by red wolves, birds of prey such as the bald eagle, the Florida panther and black bear, and of course, the famous alligator, just to name a few.
Although this is a sprawling park, they do a great job of keeping the exhibits easily viewable and accessible, allowing you to see these animals in what is closest to their natural environment. My husband, Scott, and I visited with our 5-month-old daughter, Avery, who squealed with delight as we strolled past the exhibits.
She is already head-over-heels in love with animals, thanks to our two dogs at home who are her best buds. She was able to spot the manatees in the water right from her stroller thanks to the glass wall overlooking the spring and was fascinated by the giant chunkers floating by in the underwater observatory.
She clutched her favorite stuffed hippo as we watched Lu, North America’s oldest hippo, swim around his pond. She was so enthralled with all the creatures, she refused to nap the whole day until we were on our way back home, for fear of missing out on the fun.
Homosassa Springs is one of the only places in the world that manatees can be observed year-round and the only wildlife state park in Florida, making it a truly unique stop on any trip and a must-see!
By: Kelsey Walters
4150 South Suncoast Blvd.
Homosassa, FL 34446
352-628-5343 – FloridaStateParks.org
Open daily, year-round from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Adults – $13 – Children ages 6 – 12 – $5 (under 5 – free)