Joseph has lived and traveled around the State of Florida for over 40 years, specifically around the Florida Panhandle and Gulf Coast.
There are few animals that embody Florida wildlife more than the manatee. Recently removed from the endangered species list, the manatee makes several Florida rivers and springs its home and can be seen up close in its natural habitat in a limited number of places in the world
At the two state parks below, you can take in the experience of the manatee's habitat, along with several other sights. These parks offer a great natural learning opportunity that is great as part of a family vacation, or just a day trip. Read about each of the parks below and be sure to add them to your next trip in Central Florida.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Park
The Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park originally was an exotic "petting zoo." Although the manatees have always been a part of the attraction of the area of Homosassa Springs, the Homosassa River area was home to many other animals. In the 1960s the park was home to many exotic animals including a 6,000 pound hippopotamus that is the only non-native animal in the park today.
People visiting the current Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park will be able to see many of the state's native animals, including alligators, black bears, bobcats, a panther, deer, eagles, flamingos, and many more. With photo opportunities every few feet and great animal shows happening every hour, this park is great for any adults and families visiting the Sunshine State.
The Gentle Manatees
Every year, millions of people visit the state of Florida in search of natural beauty. Although Florida is known for beaches, there is a world of wildlife and natural beauty to be seen in the interior of the state as well, and at the top of that list lies the Manatee. This aquatic mammal is thought of as one of the most gentle and docile creatures of the sea and is Florida's state mammal. Listed as an "endangered" species by the United States and as "vulnerable to extinction" by the World Conservation Union, manatees are a special sight in the Florida wildlife setting. They are about 1,000 pounds and 9 feet long; not close to the "mermaids" they were mistaken for by early explorers and sailors.
The manatees at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park are easily seen in an observation station where you can view them from both above and below water. Park rangers feed the manatees and give informative shows to teach young and old about the animals and help them enjoy their visit to the park.
The manatees are not the only animals that can be seen from above and below the observation deck at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. Many different fish can be easily viewed and even fed. Swimming around the springs one can see Sheepshead, Redfish (Red Drum), Crevalle Jacks, Mangrove Snapper and more. While the springs are fresh water, the relative shortness of the Homosassa River means that most of the river is brackish, or a mixture of fresh and salt water. For this reason you will see a mixture of fresh and salt water species in a clear setting that cannot be seen in any other area.
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Birds, Reptiles, and Mammals
Although many people equate the Homosassa Springs State Park with the manatees and even the fish viewed at the springs, there are many other animals to see and learn about at the park. One of the biggest attractions, literally, is Lu, a 6,000 pound Hippopotamus. This hippo has lived his whole life at the park and was granted honorary state citizenship by Governor Lawton Chiles when the park was bought by the State and went to strictly native animals. Lu does a daily show that is a must see, especially for children. However, beware that should you stand next to the fence you will want to be clear of the animals backside, or you may be part of the show.
Another great animal to see at the park is the Florida Alligator. The park has several large alligators that can be seen next to the hippo exhibit. These reptiles are usually a few feet away from the fence sunning on the small beaches next to their pond.
Other animals to see at the Homosassa Springs State Wildife Park are the Red Wolf, the Black Bear, and the Panther. These mammals are native to Florida and although the Black Bear is making a great comeback from the brink of extinction, the Red Wolf and the Florida Panther are nearly non-existent in the wild in Florida.
The Ellie Schiller State Wildlife Park at Homosassa Springs is open 365 days a year from 9 am to 5:30 pm eastern time. The regular entrance fees are $13 per adult and $5 per child age 6 - 12 (children 5 and under are free.) There are also group rates available.
The main park entrance is off of FL Hwy 19 in Homosassa, FL. From this entrance, visitors can choose to take a scenic boat ride up "Pepper Creek" to the west entrance or they can take a ride on a tram. Once inside the west entrance visitors can walk from exhibit to exhibit, catching which ever animial shows they wish along the way. There are bathrooms and concession stands around the park to make sure your visit is as great as possible.
Manatee Springs State Park
About an hour and fifteen minutes north of Homosassa Springs is the Manatee Springs State Park. These springs empty into the Suwannee River and are much further inland than Homosassa Springs. While manatees may be seen for a large part of the year, they are generally at Manatee Springs during the winter, seeking warmer water further inland.
Manatee Springs is a first-magnitude spring and produces over 100 million gallons of clear water daily. This park offers a swimming area at the springs and snorkeling in that area is a must. Kayaks, Canoes, and Paddleboards can be launched at the old boat launch to give people the ability to be in close quarters with the manatees.
Water Sports, Food, and More
Visitors to Manatee Springs State Park have year-round access to water sports at the springs. An onsite vendor is there to rent kayaks and canoes to explore the springs and the boat run, seeing the warm water seeking manatees. The springs are also a popular site for scuba diving and underwater exploration. Those looking to stay out of the water can enjoy the parks hiking and biking trails on the north end of the park.
While visiting and exploring, you can enjoy some local BBQ cuisine offered near the springs as well. And if you choose to stay a while, there are available camping spots which would allow you to also visit nearby Fanning Springs State Park. Manatee Springs State Park offers camping at $20 per spot plus a booking fee. There is also organized youth or adult group camping at $1 per youth or $5 per adult. Also, while at the springs, there are pavilions that may be rented which includes access to water and electricity.