Moments before the 3:30 p.m. manatee program begins at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, it appears that a staffer is tossing hot dogs into the water. I cringe at the idea of giving meat to manatees and draw in a deep breath, the better for making loud protests on behalf of the gentle herbivores.
The wet-suited worker's opening comments silence me. She explains she was tossing sweet potatoes to lure the slow-moving creatures closer to the edge of the spring. Darned if they didn't look like hot dogs from a distance. And I remain mostly silent for the next couple of hours while exploring the park, enjoying the watery views and a close look at native Florida wildlife.
Homosassa Springs is a refuge for orphaned or injured West Indian manatees and for those born in captivity. They average 12 feet long and 1,200 pounds. The mammals have no defense against predators; humans are perhaps the greatest threat through watercraft or fishing accidents and habitat loss.
Visitors were few on a steamy late afternoon in June, when I stopped en route from Sarasota to Tallahassee on a one-day car trip.
I chose the park for its proximity to U.S. Highway 19 and for the chance to ride a pontoon boat along Pepper Creek from the main entrance. Unfortunately, we arrived after the last boat had sailed.
Perfect 20-20 hindsight shows that I shouldn't have lingered earlier on the white sands of the Siesta Key beach near Sarasota on the same day I had to drive to Tallahassee. That extra time on the beach cost me the 20-minute boat ride, sending me back to a hot car for a short drive to the park's west entrance.
Although I missed the boat and had limited time, I was glad I stopped. And instead of a couple hours at the park, I easily could have stayed four.
At the Fish Bowl, which floats in the headwaters of Homosassa Spring, visitors can see manatees and fish through large underwater windows. I bypassed the children's education center in favor of lingering along the walkway that borders the shallow Homosassa River to photograph great blue herons.
Especially if you're traveling with children, allow plenty of time to follow the path through the animal habitats. There's ample shade that invites lingering. Habitat highlights include an alligator lagoon, where passersby are reflected in the water, but the 'gators don't stand a chance of catching humans.
When a stork lands on an overhead tree limb, it stands with its wings spread wide, revealing the myriad feathers and grand design that underlie each magnificently constructed wing. A great egret frames its striking profile against a dark background and all but presses the shutter on my camera.
A familiar feeling of sadness for animals living in captivity slowly overtakes my shutterbug enthusiasm. Black bears, tortoises, a hippopotamus, river otters, a cougar, bobcats, red wolves, owls, hawks and bald eagles — creatures great and small are on view. The children I saw at the park were impressed, and parents had to lure them from one habitat to the next.
On July 15, the park was named in honor of the late Ellie Schiller of Yankeetown, Fla., an environmentalist who supported the park and several area institutions through the Felburn Foundation. In the 1940s, the land housed an entertainment attraction featuring exotic animals. After changing hands through the years, it became a state park in 1989 and has grown to focus on native Florida wildlife and environmental education, says park services specialist Susan Strawbridge.
For me, Homosassa's highlights are the birds. My camera could not capture a picture that I carry in my heart: being eye-to-eye with the egret. The bird and I look closely at each other, and for a moment I feel like the one who's on display.
Nor will I soon forget the lesson from my mistake about what the manatees were eating before the start of the program: Look closely, because things are not always what they seem.
IF YOU GO:
PARK DETAILS: Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, U.S. 19 and 98, Homosassa Springs; 352-628-2311 (recording) and 352-628-5343; www.hswsp.com; www.floridastateparks.org.
Open daily 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; ticket counter closes at 4 p.m.
Admission: $13, adults; $5, ages 6-12; free, 5 and younger.
NEARBY: Crystal River Preserve State Park is about 20 minutes by car from Homosassa Springs. The park borders the coast between Homosassa and Yankeetown. Among the many trails are the two-mile Ecowalk, the 1.7-mile Crystal Cove Birding Trail and Fort Island Gulf Beach, all sites on the Great Florida Birding Trail. Free. Contact: www.crystalriverstateparks.org for links to the preserve, the Crystal River Archaeological State Park, the Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins Historic State Park in Homosassa and more.