And 1 Hippopotamus

Over the past week we have found ourselves in the middle of a family debate. The younger Fives say that the natural springs in Florida are way too cold. Us older Fives think that the 72 degree water is a wonderful reprieve from the sweltering 90 degree heat that we have experienced day in and out. We keep insisting that they have regularly swum in much colder water and that their time in Florida has made them soft. The kids have insisted that we are crazy and there is no way that they are spending more than ten minutes wading in the icy springs. Since we are at a stalemate and spending a day swimming is out of the question, we decided to check out the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park and learn about the native residents that call the springs home.

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Homosassa Springs has a long history as a popular visitor attraction on the Gulf Coast. From the 1920’s when the train would stop and passengers could marvel at the multitude of fish in the crystal clear spring. To the 1960’s when the area was home of a private zoo-like attraction where visitors took a boat ride down the creek past an island teeming with monkeys. After falling on hard times Homosassa Springs was bought by the State of Florida in 1989 and has since been opperated as a state park and wildlife rehibilitation center.

Our visit to the park began, similarly to visitors of the past, with a relaxing boat ride down the creek towards the spring. As we floated along quietly we saw turtles, fish and a massive osprey nest high up in the trees. Once at the park we started at the children’s education center where the younger Fives worked on puzzles and activity books teaching them about some of the species that we would see in the park. Next it was over to the “Fish Bowl”, the enormous underwater observatory situated above the spring itself. Walking down into the naturally cooled observatory we got an amazing look at the numerous species of fish swimming in the cool waters. Then it was time for the manatee program where we found out that the manatees spend their winters in Homosassa Springs and springs throughout Florida because they find the water much warmer than that of the ocean and gulf. As manatees can not live in prolonged temperatures below 68 degrees they crowd into the springs to stay warm. The park has four resident manatees that cannot be released to the wild due to their condition. The park also has the facilities to care for and rehabilitate injured manatees. During the presentation we were able to watch the manatees swim from above and below the observatory as they munched down large heads of lettuce.

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From the manatees we headed over from a look at Lou the resident hippopotamus. Lou has been at the park since 1964 and was granted special Florida citizenship in 1991 so that he could remain in the park once it was taken over by the state and designated as a park for only native Florida wildlife. Lou’s water was not as clean as the lovely spring water of the manatees and we all agreed that we would rather be manatees than hippos or one of the many alligators that were housed right next door. From Lou we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of birds, mammals, and reptiles that there were to see. The highlights for us were the cottonmouth snake, burrowing owls, Florida panther, and Florida key deer all species that we had read about previously. The day flew as we walked around the park which reminded us a great deal of our local wildlife park in Gray, Maine. We stopped off to say goodbye to the manatees before leaving for the day. Seeing a wild manatee at Sebastian Inlet was definitely more exciting but we were all glad to have the opportunity to learn about them up close. We will surely be reminding the kids that the spring water isn’t too cold for the manatees the next time that they complain.

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