A warm and sunny December day on Florida's west-central coast was a perfect day to visit Citrus County in west central Florida, and the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The State Park is also a rehabilitation center for injured and orphaned West Indian manatees, and showcases some of Florida's most beautiful natural landscape and native wildlife. Visit Citrus County sponsored this tour for us, and we thank them for introducing us to the Park.
We were warmly greeted in the Visitor Center by Bob, a Florida State Park volunteer who was outgoing and full of information that was all valuable once inside the park. He was quite convincing on how best to get to the park entrance from the Visitor Center so we took his advice and opted for the 20-minute pontoon boat ride rather than the 8 minute tram. We were glad we did.
Pepper Creek was scenic and tranquil with a few resident alligators, turtles, colorful wood ducks, and numerous other birds.
Our boat captain narrated the short trip, explaining how Pepper Creek got its name and adding a good bit of historical information about the park. It felt like we were gliding across the water in the pontoon boat. It was eerily quiet - perfect for sneaking up on smaller wildlife - and a great way to start the tour.
Once off the boat, we crossed the narrow two lane Fishbowl Drive and arrived at the west entrance to the park. Here there were restrooms, a gift shop, and the Wildside Cafe. The Park is 210 acres large but easily seen along a loop of paved trails and boardwalks which meanders through the entire area.
We started the park loop to the left and headed for the Fish Bowl underwater observatory. It's a short walk and we stopped first to watch a couple of large manatees lazing in the crystal clear water. What an awesome sight to see!
The observatory itself is simple in its design but truly wondrous in its effect. Located about ten feet below the water surface but directly above the freshwater Homosassa Spring, the observatory experience is like climbing inside a giant aquarium. Homosassa spring is the centerpiece of the park and the headwaters of the Homosassa River. Millions of gallons of fresh, clear water bubble up every hour and the clear water teems with fish. Snook, one of the most sought after game fish on the Florida coast, many over 3 feet in length, along with schools of snapper and hundreds of smaller fish filled almost every window. If that wasn't enough, one of the manatees we had seen from the path peeked in the upper corner of one of the windows while chewing on a length of rope. Did I say wondrous? I could have stayed there for hours.
We could always come back later but we didn't want to miss the alligator and hippopotamus educational programs.
Say what? A hippo? In Florida?
Not just any hippo...meet Lucifer.
Known as "Lu” to his friends, he was born at the San Diego Zoo in 1960. After some time in movies and television shows, in 1964 Lu became a resident of the park, which was privately owned at the time. The Florida Park Service purchased the attraction in 1989 with the intention of showcasing Florida's native wildlife while finding homes for the exotic animals like Lu.
Public support, however, led then-Governor Lawton Chiles to grant Lu a special Florida citizenship which allows him to remain at the park for the rest of his days. Lucifer is nearly 56, and a very pampered hippo.
One of the things that both intrigued and delighted me was watching visitors when it came time for a park volunteer to run the educational program. Lu has his own private pond where he naps for most of the day. The stone wall and fence which surround his pond were crowded with visitors, and packed with smiles.
Although hippos are massive and considered one of the world’s most dangerous animals, Lu is considered by many to be the unofficial mascot of the Park.
The alligator program, although interesting in its own right, didn't draw near the number of folks that were in awe of Lu the Hippo. The gators have their own lagoon complete with wading birds and small fish and turtles, but on this day they weren’t doing much other than sunning themselves.
Although the alligators may not have been very dynamic, there was a lot going on above their lagoon. High up in the trees, half a dozen Great Blue Herons were building nests making trip after trip across the lagoon with branches in their beaks.
At least one of them was opportunistic and stole the materials from a neighbors nest when its neighbors flew off to find more of their own.
The nest builders and alligator lagoon mark the start of the Wildlife Walk where native species are on display.
Red wolves, foxes and birds of prey, including a Golden Eagle who lost a wing to a poacher, a pair of Bald Eagles and several types of hawks were along the trail. It's fascinating the way raptors look you straight in the eye.
The cacophony of bird sounds ebbed and flowed and certainly grabbed our attention. The Whooping Cranes especially were in fine voice and seemed to lead the chorus with their distinctly loud whoops. It was wild!
In the center of the loop that makes up this path is a creek and several connected ponds. Occupying the creek was a small flock of bright flamingos sleeping on one leg, Roseate spoonbills equally as colorful, Ibises sifting along the shoreline, and Wood Storks just hanging out.
Along the next leg of the loop was the elusive Florida Panther. One of the most endangered animals in Florida and one we had hoped to see up close, he remained out out sight behind a large log, except for his ears which we managed to glimpse. It's okay, I'll take it. Maybe next time.
The good news is the panther's next door neighbors are a pair of bobcats, and these two were not shy. They are beautiful to see, one sitting, staring back and the other lying on its stomach with eyes squinted just like our house cat.
We came to the manatee educational program around the same time that part of the walkway was being temporarily shut down. An adult female manatee had been struck by a boat, and her wounds were being tended to by a group of local conservation staff and volunteers.
The Park houses four West Indian manatees, all mature and each weighing approximately 3,000 pounds. Manatees remain on the endangered species list and these four have been rehabilitated after being injured. They remain in waters within the park boundary to help educate the public on the dangers they face, both environmental and especially from human activities.
Manatees are mesmerizing to watch, slow in their movements, and gentle and playful with one another. But a quick flip of their tail fin can propel them twenty feet away in an instant.
The injured female had a large group helping her from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife, Florida Wildlife Commission, the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, and several volunteers of local conservation/protection groups. They administered antibiotics, and at the same time gathered important information on her such as weight and other biometrics.
Propeller wounds are an all-too-common occurrence for manatees, however these are generally not life-threatening injuries. The more dangerous injuries they face from boats involve direct collisions which can break ribs, puncture a lung, or damage their internal organs.
We watched the team skillfully tend to her, then slowly, carefully, carry her in a heavy tarp and release her back into the water where she swam away. If there is good news, it is in the tremendous dedication of these people to attend to the injured and help maintain a proper habitat for the manatee. Such a great effort to observe, and good eco lesson for kids.
The walkway was reopened and we walked along the back side of the lagoon, where schools of fish dotted the crystal blue water and the lagoon opened up to the river beyond.
Areas throughout the crystal springs of Citrus County - including Homosassa Springs - are roped off as designated manatee 'sanctuaries' depending on the time of year and resulting water temperatures (typically December through March).
During this time, no boats, kayaks, swimming, or snorkeling is allowed in the sanctuaries, giving the manatees a place of relative warmth and refuge.
We ended our tour at the viewing area overlooking the manatee sanctuary, and several Park guides were on hand to answer questions about them and their habitat.
Of course, we had to stop back at the Fish Bowl observatory for one last look before catching the last boat back to the Visitor Center. Our visit at the Park was worth every minute of the three hours we spent there, and so much more.
If You Go
Planning a visit to Citrus County and Crystal River? Stop in the Citrus County Welcome Center before your visit for coupons and area information.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park - 4150 S Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa, FL 34446