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  Florida has so many things to see and do that it's no wonder it is such a popular stopping spot. Attractions with activities appealing to all ages abound in places such as Disney's The Magic Kingdom, Cypress Gardens, MGM Studios and Sea World. Due to their popularity, these places can be very busy especially during the peak tourist season. This is the time that we look for less crowded, but equally as interesting, locations to visit.

  During a recent Florida visit while en route to a winter camping spot, we stopped at Turtle Creek Campground at Homosassa Springs. An RVing friend from New Brunswick was staying there so we simply thought we'd take the time to visit.

  This wonderful stopover located at the mouth of the Homosassa River overflows with amenities as well as having many fun things to do. The river flows into the Gulf of Mexico nine miles away and the headwaters and the 45-foot deep spring entice thousand of freshwater and saltwater fish. Surrounded by numerous wetlands, this is a utopia for migrating birds and a wide variety of wildlife.

    One highlight of this memorable place is Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park bordering on Fishbowl Drive. Most of the birds and animals found in the park could not survive in the wild. The park becomes their refuge and the available food enhances their lifestyle.

  Although the park began as a tourist stopping spot on the train route in the early 1900s, the area had been a getaway for famous and wealthy vacationers since the late 1880s. Sportsmen would come in by horse and buggy from Ocala to fish and hunt. Previous to that, during the Civil War, the Confederate Army used a 5,000-acre plantation as a base. It didn't become a privately-owned attraction until 1940. It continued to change hands until 1984 when the Department of Environmental Protection bought it and formed the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife park.

 

A park ranger hand feeds a manatee its daily treat (actually a vitamin pill made for elephants). Manatees also love carrots.

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  This park has become a haven for a wide variety of wildlife, especially the captive Florida-born manatees as well as for those that are sick or injured and need rehabilitation before being released back into the wild.

  Manatees are immense aquatic mammals that live entirely on plant life found in the shallow and slow-moving waters near sea grass beds. They can weigh up to 3,000 pounds and grow up to 13 feet in body length. They eat about 10 to 15 percent of their body weight each day. These gentle creatures have no natural enemy - except for man.

  Boating injuries, becoming tangled in fishing lines, loss of habitats, pollution, poaching or drowning in floodgates cause their numbers to drop daily. The red tide also takes its deadly toll.  Survival figures of this species vary from 1,200 to 1,800.

  Manatees are completely harmless grey sea cows with a seal-like body that tapers to a flat tail. They use their two forelimbs as hands and each "paw" has three to four nails. These extremely gentle creatures are shy and reclusive. (It is believed that sailors in past centuries thought that manatees were mermaids, a belief that gave birth to a legend.)

  

Although they have no external earlobes, they can hear. Manatees emit audible squeaks and squeals when playing or if frightened. This "language" is especially apparent between a cow and her calf.

  When submerged, their nostrils close up tightly and open again when they surface to breathe. These king-size and non-hostile mammals are also travellers and winter primarily in Florida. In the summer they move west to Virginia and the Carolinas. A few have surfaced as far south as Recife, Brazil. If not threatened by humans, they would enjoy a long life. Females usually start breeding between the ages of five and nine while males start between six and nine. Gestation takes about 13 months and they calf every two to three years. The births are live and usually single - twins are rare.

  Because manatees were being hurt so often, a Save the Manatee Club began in 1981 and the Adopt-A-Manatee program followed in 1989. They both help with rescue and rehab programs and new "parents" receive a certificate, a photo and four newsletters each year. Proceeds contribute to saving these highly endangered mammals. Adoptions for manatees at the Homosassa State Park as well as at the Blue Spring State Park near Orange Lake can be arranged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Red skies at night; Sailor's delight". This gorgeous Florida sunset foretells the dawning of another beautiful day.

 

   During the manatee educational program, the ranger threw carrots to the manatees to entice them to play with her. As she explained their lifestyle traits, the ranger entered the water to feed the manatees their daily treat - which are actually vitamin snacks for elephants. The ranger knew each manatee by name and a baby was hugging her leg - just like a human baby would do to his/her mother while waiting for a cookie. Because most of the manatees will be released into the wild, the park staff doesn't encourage audience interaction.

  The park stays open every day and three manatee talks take place near a Giant Fish Bowl (a floating underwater observatory). The observatory is a perfect place to see the antics of the manatees and to watch their various facial expressions. When eating, the manatees hold their food in their tiny forelimbs - using them just like we would our hands.

  In the observatory, a million gallons of fresh clear water bubbles up every half hour. River water in the area stays at a constant temperature of 72 degrees. Not only does this attract the manatees, but it also encourages 34 different species of fish to make the area their home.

  Centrally located 75 miles north of Tampa and St. Petersburg, the park is easily accessible to every Florida visitor. The park also runs tours. Each tour begins at the Highway 19 entrance where you board a pontoon boat. The boat travels across a spring-run stream past a dense green tropical growth of plant life and numerous bird habitats. Along this route, park staff have built wooden nesting huts to help the colourful wood ducks protect their young from predators.

Flamingos are just one of the many species of birds found at the park.

  There's more to Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park besides a perfect opportunity to see the real Florida while strolling along the nature trails and unspoiled wetlands. Otters, cougars, bobcats, deer and bear plus a huge crocodile and a community of alligators live there, too. The extensive bird life includes blue herons, egrets, flamingos, pelicans, owls and various birds of prey. Many of these animals, reptiles and birds have been injured and nursed back to health. All of the wildlife found in the park are Florida natives except for a huge ex-movie star hippo. Although not from Florida, his contract stated that he could live his days out at the park.

 

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  Volunteer park rangers have fun when playing with the manatees but they also present comprehensive programs explaining the habits of the alligators plus generalized animal encounter demonstrations that includes information on Florida's snake population. Each presentation is repeated three times throughout the day. This peaceful place is a perfect way to learn and understand more about the delicate balance of the ecosystems.

The wetlands and natural habitat located in the park are perfect for this community of alligators basking in the warm sun.

 

  Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park is wheelchair accessible with plenty of picnic areas, snack bars and a really good gift shop featuring many Save the Manatee Club souvenirs. Proceeds from the sale of these souvenirs help support the rescue mission. So that your own pet can wait in comfort and safety, kennels are provided free of charge.

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Photos by Peggi McDonald