Photo courtesy of Homosassa Spring State Wildlife Park.
Photo courtesy of Homosassa Spring State Wildlife Park.
Directions (address: 4150 S. Suncoast Blvd, Homosassa, FL 34446; phone 352-628-5343)
Located along U.S. 19 in Homosassa (main entrance to Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park). Alternatively, go directly to the spring by turning west onto Highway 490 (Halls river road in Homosassa. Go about 0.5 mile, then turn left (SW) unto Fish Bowl Drive and proceed less than a mile to the spring on the right. Google maps link: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Homosassa+Springs+Wildlife+State+Parkfirstname.lastname@example.org,-82.5768147,15z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0xf7fa9234566fd8f3?sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiRkPvWnt3VAhUHyoMKHWrLA5MQ_BIIigEwCg
The main source of the Homosassa River, Homosassa Spring forms a semicircular pool about 75 feet in diameter. Water flows from three limestone openings around a collapsed cavern at respective depths (as measured by Scott et al., 2002, p. 35) of 67, 65, and 62 feet. Each of the three vents has a distinct chemical composition (Champion & Starks, May 2001, p. 57). There are wide boils in the spring pool. A circular limestone ledge is visible on the perimeter of the pool. Water in the spring, which is somewhat tidally affected, is clear and blue. Fish are abundant in the spring pool and include many marine species such as Crevalle Jack, catfish, striped bass, and sheepshead. Several manatees are permanent residents of the spring as part of on-site rehabilitation and education programs. An underwater observatory is built over the springhead.
The spring forms a run that flows nine miles to the Gulf of Mexico. The upper part of the run is flanked by housing and other development. The lower portion gives way to pine islands and salt marshes as it nears the Gulf. The run widens, diffuses, becomes more salty, and has reduced visibility as it flows to the west. According to Cherry et al. (1970), the various springs near Homosassa vary widely in chloride (salt) concentrations, suggesting there are several sources for the different flow points. The chloride amounts in the spring flows also varies with the tide.
After flowing a short distance, the flow (104 cfs) from the main spring at Homosassa is joined by a nearly equal amount (89 cfs) of water flowing from several springs that form the Southeast Fork of the Homosassa River. About a mile below the main spring, Halls River flows into the Homosassa River. This spring-fed river has flow total of 162 cfs. The Southwest Florida Water Management District combines all these springs and flows into the Homosassa Springs Group. Nitrate levels at the spring have risen steadily over the past 30 years (Champion and Starks, May 2001, pp. 55-59).
- The spring is the site of a state wildlife park and offers underwater observation at the spring, a zoo, manatee feedings, gift shops, restrooms, docks for park's pontoon boat operation and tram station (not for public use), picnic areas, trails, handicapped access, a first aid station, a garden, museum/education center, and animal education programs/presentations.
- Wild manatees cannot actually come up into the main spring. There is a barricade outside the spring pool that the resident manatees in the rehabilitation program confined, and the wild manatees from entering.
- The wildlife park at the site focuses on Florida wildlife and includes alligators, bears, otters, raptors, bobcats, panther, deer, Key deer, and other animals.
- Visitors who enter the wildlife park at the U.S. 19 entrance are transported to the main park area by boat. The entrance along Fish Bowl Drive is right by the spring, which can be seen from the road through a chain-link fence.
- The wildlife park features an exhibit room of paintings by famous artist Winslow Homer, who spent time at the spring in the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century and who painted the natural scenes at Homosassa.
- Manatees visit the spring area in the winter as well as a wide area in the spring run just outside the park boundary, which is 1,000 feet downstream from the spring itself. This site is heavily visited by swim-with-the-manatees excursion pontoon boats. JF saw a dolphin in this area on one visit in the mid 1990s, approximately nine miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico in water that is almost entirely fresh.
- Homosassa became a state park in 1989, after years of being privately owned. In years past, and going back to the late 19th Century, the spring was a private attraction which people visited to seek cures in the water, to observe nature, and for other recreation.
- The flow at Homosassa is decreasing, probably the result of increased human extraction/use of water in its watershed/catchment basin.
- In addition to its collection of native Florida animals, the wildlife park also has, incongruously, a hippopotamus. According to the park manager, the hippo has been at the site for most of his life. In the 1990s, when the park service was looking for another home for the hippo, the local newspaper started a letter-writing campaign to the governor. Thousands of letters were written in favor of keeping the hippo, and then Governor Lawton Chiles responded by making the hippo an "honorary citizen of the State of Florida" and allowing him live out his life here.
The view from the underwater "Fishbowl" is almost astonishing—a nearly solid but always moving and circling wall of fish. This profusion, greater than the authors have seen in any spring other than the Natural Well at Silver Glen Springs, offers a glimpse and reminder of what many Florida springs were like before the days of development.
Other Homosassa Headwaters Springs
Echo (perhaps Trotter or McClain or Abdoney?) Spring
Crystal River/King’s Bay Springs Group
Chassahowitzka Springs Group
Rainbow Springs Group
Other Nearby Natural Features
Rainbow Springs State Park
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge
Withlacoochie State Forest
An Essay on Homosassa Springs
One March in the late 1990s, my family and some friends drove to Homosassa to see the manatees. We brought canoes and rented a boat, and after the weather cleared made our way upriver to a wide shallow area outside the Homosassa springhead and state wildlife park. There were about 15 manatees there, and we had a glorious time watching and getting into the water with them. Several of us were able to get close enough to touch one.
We learned that Homosassa is one of a decreasing number of winter sanctuaries for manatees. Despite their blubber, manatees cannot tolerate water temperatures below about 65 degrees. So they have for eons wintered in Florida springs, which maintain more or less constant temperatures.
Manatees look slow from a boat, but are uncomfortably swift when you’re in the water and suddenly see one heading your way. At such times their great bulk--up to 13 feet and 3,000 pounds--commands your undivided attention. They are placid but not tame, and paid us little mind, eating and napping as if we weren’t there.
Evolving over millions of years, manatees are now condemned by the traits that served them so well until we came along. With no natural predators, they have no defenses. They did not need to worry about propellers in the past, and so never developed rapid flight mechanisms to get out of harm’s way. They are not like squirrels or pigeons who adapt to having their habitat transmogrified into human work and leisure spaces.
We returned to see the manatees this winter. The weather was pleasant, and we headed to the springhead in the morning. The nice weather attracted another big mammal to the spring; people were everywhere. Outfitters were bringing folks to see the manatees by the pontoon boat-full. Starting at dawn, an unending string of watercraft made their way to the spring to disgorge snorkelers in rented wet-suits as part of weekend "swim-with-the-manatees" package deals.
There were only 2-3 manatees in the area. They can be hard to spot, but today all you had to do was look for the crowd. Each was engulfed by people determined to lay their hands on the placid giants. We were told not to chase, corner, ride, grab, herd, block, separate, or otherwise harass the manatees. The groups in the water were doing nearly all these things.
We had several children along, and I paddled them over to get a look at a mother and baby manatee that were encircled by a phalanx of divers about 45 feet away. Excited, the children jumped into the water. The person in charge of the pontoon boat shouted at the kids: "Don’t jump into the water. You’ll scare the manatees away!" She said it a second and then a third time, raising her voice over the tumult of her group, who were doing everything but copulating with the two manatees they had surrounded.
I yelled back that her people were harassing the manatees. She replied it was all right to put one hand on them, but if 15 people do it at once, a one-hand restriction is meaningless. She then got in, chasing the mother and baby until they got around her into the sanctuary of the state park. She then sanctimoniously raised her hands and said no one must follow them. "They know they’re safe in there," she intoned.
We moved off. Those of us who had seen the manatees a year before felt sick to our stomachs. This then, is the gauntlet the manatees face every winter weekend in the springs. Perhaps not every outfitter was as bad as the one we saw. Perhaps the manatees don’t mind being mobbed and it is a conceit to anthropomorphise them. But it did not look right. The manatees were being loved to death.
I thought again. A year ago I had done the same thing. I had gotten in the water with manatees and I had been thrilled to touch one. I was dressed as the other people in the water were and had come out on a rented boat as they had. What we saw was merely a large-scale version of what we had done ourselves a year before.
So what is the answer? First, people need to observe the rules of interaction with manatees and not let their enthusiasm overtake them. There are several captive manatees in the Homosassa Wildlife Park that can be seen up close year ‘round. Seeing them so close and vulnerable makes one want to protect them. Protection can take many forms, including supporting preservation efforts and motoring slowly in manatee zones. It also means not developing every inch of land surrounding manatee habitat.
Ultimately, we are responsible for the fate of the manatee. We can ensure our grandchildren’s grandchildren will see them 100 years hence, or we can pleasure ourselves now and have only stories about manatees to tell in the future.