Manatee eats lettuce at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Florida. Notice its toe nails, eyes and prehensile lips. Photo credit: David Muenker
I got addicted to watching manatees at Blue Spring State Park, and after a month without seeing any of the priceless critters, I needed a fix. Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park reportedly had manatees on site. And it was within an hour of Bushnell, where we were camping.
The park’s focal point is a large pool fed by the springs. We joined scores of other visitors on bleachers along the pool’s edge for the manatee program. A park employee heaved huge carrots into the green water to attract the local manatees. While they fed, she explained there are four resident manatees, each one incapable of living in the wild. (Another pool was providing temporary refuge for a few wild manatees suffering from cold stress.)
I couldn’t help but compare the Homosassa Springs and Blue Spring experiences. At Blue Spring, everything is natural and wild. At Homosassa Springs, the manatees are captive. They eat a zoo-type diet of lettuce, carrots and other human vegetables. And they interact with the staff like performance animals.
I prefer seeing wild manatees in their natural environment but Homosassa Springs offers something I couldn’t readily do in the wild.
Posing as a manatee at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Florida. Photo credit: David Muenker
I got to see swimming manatees up close from underwater. And without getting wet. The park’s observatory platform has an underwater viewing area located close to where the manatees get fed.
The underwater view revealed the toe nails on their tiny flippers, their round eyes, and even the hair on their bodies. And I got to watch them eat. First, they use their flippers to direct the food towards their mouths. Then they gather the food into their mouths with their prehensile lips, similar in function to an elephant’s trunk. (Elephants are their closet living relative.) They’re so darn cute!
And I got to be as cute as they are by posing as a manatee!
With bellies full, the manatees disappeared into the center of the pond, so we explored the rest of the park. Red wolves, black bears, panthers and other animals native to Florida displayed their raw beauty as they paced their fenced areas. The park also gives refuge to an array of birds, whose injuries make survival in the wild impossible: bald eagles, barred owls, American kestrels, and more.
An American Flamingo displays its plummage. Photo credit: David Muenker
Other birds were just passing through, knowing they could get some great free food at the park. I loved seeing so many of the birds we’ve spotted on our travels in Florida up close. Roseate spoonbills, sandhill cranes, ibises, anhingas, white pelicans… By asking the park staff lots of questions, I learned how to distinguish whooping cranes from wood storks, great egrets from snowy egrets.
Our visit was on the cusp of mating season. Wispy delicate tail feathers graced the brilliant white great egrets. American flamingos dueled with their beaks, puffed out their plumage, strutted and danced.
At any moment, a flock of ibises would fly above and around us, then alight on a different spot, only to take wing again just inches above our heads.
All too soon the afternoon drew to a close. But I felt great. I got my manatee fix with a bunch of colorful, entertaining birds thrown in.