There is far more to Florida than Miami Beach, Orlando and Mickey Mouse. Just a few miles off the main highways, there are vast areas of sub-tropical forests, wet lands and sleepy backwoods communities.
We were heading for just such a place after Christmas. Two hours north of Tampa, up Highway 19, in Citrus County, there is a left turn to Homosassa Springs - a small resort on the Homosassa River, 10 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico on Florida’s west coast.
This is where we found ourselves in the last days of December. We were in good company, as this was also the place chosen by manatees for their winter shelter.
During the colder months of the year, when sea temperatures are cool, manatees move inland to the warm water springs which feed many Florida rivers, including the Homosassa, where there is a constant water temperature of 72 F.
So, what is a manatee?
The West Indian Manatee is vegetarian mammal, sometimes called a sea cow. They may grow up to 13 feet in length and weigh more than 3,000 pounds, but despite their huge size, they are shy and gentle creatures and incredibly endearing.
They have no natural enemies. Their greatest problem is modern man in boats. 41% of manatee deaths are caused by watercraft collision. A healthy manatee, who avoids the propellers of power boats, can expect to live for 50 to 60 years.
There are other races of manatee, e.g. the Amazonian and West African. A close cousin is the dugong which lives in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. There are a few in the Red Sea, but more are found around Northern Australia.
Swimming with Manatees
Early every morning, a boat leaves the small marina at Homosassa and travels the short distance up river to the warm springs where the manatees gather. Snorkelling equipment and a wetsuit are the order of the day. Slipping gently off the back of the boat, you are a minute or two away from a magical manatee experience. Floating in the shallow, sunlit water, you will soon come across a manatee chomping on its favourite diet of sea grasses, or simply resting on the sandy bottom.
Some of the larger manatees have calves with them. The youngsters are the most inquisitive and they’ll come right up close, with their squidgy noses almost touching your mask. They like contact and if you scratch their back, they’ll often roll over to have their tummies rubbed. This is a truly amazing encounter with a unique animal in its natural environment. We found the experience very moving and we booked three boat trips during our stay, spending about two hours each time in the water.
Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park
On the days we weren’t swimming with manatees, we went to the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park - a refuge for native Floridian wildlife and endangered species. The park serves as a rehabilitation centre and sanctuary for manatees that have been orphaned or injured in the wild and also for manatees that have been born in captivity.
A huge spring, from which millions of gallons of fresh clear water bubbles every day, is the centrepiece of the park and is the headwater of the Homosassa River. Here there is a floating observatory where you can go below the water’s surface to view the manatees along with thousands of fresh and salt water fish.
This page was last updated on : 06 Sep 2011