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Homosassa Wildlife Park: Manatees in rehab and wild in the river

Crystal River Manatee

Probably the easiest and most reliable way to see manatees on the Nature Coast in northeast Florida is at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, right off the main drag, route 19. You can see female manatees that can’t leave and young manatees that will be released someday getting fed at the Manatee Care Center. Plus, it’s one of the very few places in the area you might get to see wild manatees from the shore (easier on you and the manatees)–provided you show up in January or early February.

Like pretty much all the Homosassa manatee attractions, it’s hard to get your head around where the logistics. The wildlife park used to be a private zoo in Florida’s roadside zoo attraction heyday; the lone hold-over is the hippo, Lu, now 51. Otherwise, it now only takes native wildlife that can’t live in the wild because they were injured, sick or raised in captivity.

The park has a big parking lot and outpost on route 19 but the real action is closer to the shore. You either take a pontoon boat (they leave about every 15 minutes) or you walk. Or, you can just drive there. The park really begins deep in the pretty, winding Spanish moss covered roads of old Homosassa.

Captive manatees getting fed at Homosassa Wildlife Park

Some people will tell you the park only has captive manatees. Not true. Wild manatees visit the area. I heard varying accounts of whether they are allowed in the spring lagoon. They certainly come to the river and the park has one of the few, badly needed shore-based viewing options in the area. But, you’ll only be able to see them if the water is relatively cold elsewhere. (That’s December to mid-February.) After the water warms up, they don’t need the spring and spread out.

The park has a freaky glass observation submerged tower right over the spring. Even when the manatees don’t show, a dense school of large fish do. The park has regular manatee talks, but what I thought was far more interesting was the manatee feeding across the lagoon at the same time. Workers dumped bushels of cabbage in the pens and the manatees swarmed over to gently eat, sometimes popping their heads above water to get the best pieces. This is one of the few places in the world you’re ever going to see such a thing–and you can see it from maybe 15 feet.

But manatees are only one part of Homosassa Wildlife Park, which was one oh-God-I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this moment after another. Quite a few endangered animals that you can hardly see anywhere, let alone this close.

First off, you’ve got your endangered red wolves. Not way off in a distant pen. But trotting around, yawning, digging, interacting with just a chainlink fence and a few yards between you. Only about 100 of these wolves live in the wilds of North Carolina; about 200 survive in 40 facilities around the country.

Then there are the cranes: sandhills sitting on nests and whooping cranes literally within five feet of visitors. One of the workers said that the male is especially friendly and something of a ham. He was the sole survivor when a horrible storm wiped out the other 17 birds in his colony in 2007 at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

Wood storks sit awkwardly on the grass. Flamingos bathe and rest. Bald eagles photogenically pose in front of an American flag. I saw one get flustered by a small, cheeky gray squirrel who came to drink from his pond. A large flock of vultures has decided the place is quite hospitable, so they’ve volunteered themselves as an exhibit. There are also black bears, key deer, mountain lions, panthers and a pond of playful otters.

Where to Go See Manatees

Places to See Wildlife in Florida

Go Whale Watching

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