Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
After a quiet weekend of recuperation for Rob, we were both anxious to get out and do something. Once the fog cleared Tuesday morning we decided to go to the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park which is about 7 miles from Rock Crusher Canyon. Arriving at the main visitor center at 4150 S. Suncoast Boulevard (US 19) around noon, we explored the numerous displays focusing on the history of the park.
Once we bought our tickets ($13 per person but with a AAA or AARP discount, only $9.81), we were directed outside to a covered dock and an awaiting pontoon boat. The boat would take us on a 20 minute narrated tour along the Pepper River to the west entrance to the park on Fishbowl Drive. Along the way, the captain pointed out some of the birds, turtles, alligators and other wildlife while talking about the history of the park. Just the boat ride was worth the entrance fee. Rob was intrigued with the electric outboards used on these boats.
Eventually we came to another covered dock across the street from the west entrance where there was another smaller Visitor Center (tickets can be bought at either entrance). Since there was a manatee program coming up shortly at 1:30 pm we headed along the pathway on the left until we came upon some bleachers where we sat down. After a 15 minute wait, a volunteer ranger gave a talk on the West Indian manatees that can frequently be seen in the river.
Although we’ve attended manatee programs before, we were presented with some new tidbits of info about the manatee’s themselves as well as the specifics of the spring and headwaters here. Unfortunately though, on this day the manatees had moved further down the river to feed so we didn’t see any while in that section of the park.
The park’s centerpiece is a first-magnitude freshwater spring, which produces millions of gallons of crystal-clear 72 degree water each hour with the spring outflow creating the Homosassa River. Although we didn’t see any manatees right there, we could see lots of fish swimming around – Snooks, Sheepshead, Crevalle Jacks, Mullets and many more. Some were quite large!
After we left the seating area where the program was held, we watched the fish for bit to let the crowd disperse, then we headed into the underwater observatory. No manatees but it was fun watching the fish up close and personal. Usually you see fish darting about but in this case, it was almost like they were in slow motion or asleep – there were hundreds of them suspended in the water, not moving much at all.
After walking a short distance further along the loop path, we stopped at an overlook where we could see lots of pontoon boats, kayaks and canoes just sitting trying to spot some manatees. When we were in this area in March 2011 one of those pontoon boats was us! It was great to get a look at things from another perspective. Although we saw one smaller manatee quickly surface for air, it quickly disappeared under the water so we didn’t get a good look at it. But while we were looking for manatees, we saw a number of jumping mullet – they seemed to jump a few feet out of the water. Cool!
A short distance ahead was the manatee rehab area for injured or orphaned manatees. Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is part of the Manatee Rehabilitation partnership (MRP). Homosassa serves as a rehabilitation facility providing a temporary home for manatees until they can be released back to the wild. In one of the larger pools, there were two manatees which we watched for a bit, such peaceful creatures! These manatees were at the last stage of rehab and about ready to be released back into the wild. In a separate nearby pool, we could see two other manatees that were still in rehab and not ready for release.
Continuing on the wildlife walk, we passed by alligator lagoon where there were at least 8 large gators lazing around in the sun and then passed a pool where Lucifer (Lu), the 53 year old hippo, was submerged. Lu first came to the Homosassa Springs Attraction in 1964 as part of Ivan Tors Animal Actors and was a TV and movie star when the park was in private ownership. His credits include 1960s movies Daktari and Cowboy in Africa, and television specials such as the Art Linkletter Show and a Herb Alpert Special. He also starred in a Union Carbide commercial.
According to our tour boat captain, when the park became part of the state park system, the intent was to only feature animals that were native to Florida so the plan was to have Lu moved to a new home. Public support led the state to grant Lu a special Florida citizenship in 1991, allowing him to stay at the park. Lu even has his own Facebook page! They have an alligator show and a hippo show but unfortunately they were earlier in the day so we missed both of those.
As we continued along the wildlife loop walk, we passed by the Key Deer exhibit, Red Wolves exhibit, Fox exhibit, Birds of Prey, Whooping Cranes, an aviary with all sorts of shore birds, Black Bears, Florida Panther and Bobcats, and River Otters.
The Wildlife Walk looped around a small river area with an island in the center. Habitants of that island included Pink Flamingos, Brown and White Pelicans, Wood Storks, Ahnigas, White and Black Swans, Herons, Egrets and Ibis plus a few uninvited Turkey Vultures.
The flamingos were the star of the show on this day, every few minutes the group would start a little mating dance squawking and flashing the underside of their wings to the ladies – what a hoot! Here’s a short video clip of their antics.
Once we had seen everything we headed back to catch a boat back to the Visitor Center where the car was parked. Unfortunately the boats stopped running at 3:30 pm and by the time we got there we had to take the tram back which wasn’t as enjoyable as the boat ride.
It turned out to be a beautiful day not only because it was sunny with temps in the low 80’s, although a little humid, but also because we so enjoyed the park. Only disappointment was that there weren’t a lot of manatees but we saw lots of them when we were here in 2011 so not a big deal. If you are ever in the area, be sure to take the time to visit this park. It’s well worth it.
Here’s more pictures (don’t forget you can use the arrow keys on your PC to scroll)….