HOMOSASSA SPRINGS, FL — If swimming with manatees is not your style, one of the best ways to enjoy them up close is at Homosassa Springs. Here they’ve taken the idea of a fishbowl and turned it inside out. Instead of peering into an aquarium, the Fish Bowl (or “Peoplebowl” as it’s sometimes called) invites visitors to step down into the center of the spring where fish and curious manatees can peer at the people.
The 168-ton floating observatory, built back in 1964, has given generations of visitors an intimate glimpse of manatees in their native environment, along with more than 30 species of fresh and saltwater fish.
Six million gallons an hour erupt from the 45-foot depths of Homosassa Springs, and the water has the clarity of an aquarium. Since the Gulf of Mexico is only nine miles away, both fresh and saltwater fish congregate here. As the manatees play in the spring, you can actually hear them squeal to each other. They frequently approach the glass to get a look at the people.
Since the park was purchased by the state in 1989, it has served as a halfway home for sick and injured manatees and a showcase for Florida wildlife. “When they’re initially injured and treated at the medical facilities, they’re in concrete tanks,” a park spokesman said. “This is an excellent place for them to get back into a more natural environment. The animals that we get here are pretty much over their injuries.”
In 2010, a survey recorded more than 5,000 manatees in Florida — a record for this endangered species. During the winter months, the animals concentrate themselves near the relative warmth of Florida’s freshwater springs (and the warm water discharge of power plants.)
But there’s more to Homosassa than the manatees. A short pontoon boat ride along Pepper Creek runs through a delightful hydric hammock composed of sabal palms, live oaks, loblolly pines, magnolia and wax myrtle trees. A 1-mile elevated boardwalk circles among wildlife exhibits along the Homosassa River that feature a full complement of Florida natives, including alligators, crocodiles, snakes, birds, bears, bobcats and river otters. The park also has rare red wolves, whooping cranes, and a Florida panther. As with the manatees, most of these animals are injured or otherwise unable to live in the wild. Educational programs are scheduled throughout the day.
Homosassa Springs has been a popular tourist destination since the early 1900s, when it was a rest stop for train passenger who were wowed by the site of alligators jumping out of the water for food.
It changed hands many times over the years and when the state took over the property 155-acre property in 1989, its ecosystems had been badly damaged. Over the years exotic species were removed and the natural setting of the spring and Pepper Creek was rehabilitated. But one exotic animal was allowed to stay. The hippopotamus named Lucifer, who served as a movie actor earlier in his career, became the object of a letter-writing campaign instigated by the Citrus County Chronicle. Governor Lawton Chiles relented and let Lucifer live out the rest of his life at the park.
Homosassa Springs Information:
The park is located at 4150 S. Suncoast Boulevard, Homosassa, Florida 34446. Phone: (352) 628-5343. The park is open daily from 9:00 a.m. until 5:30 p.m and tickets are$13 for adults and $5 for children ages 6-12.
Hotel & Lodging Information:
Many hotels, cabins and vacation rentals are available in nearby Crystal River. Here are a few favorites:
- Homosassa River Retreat has seven fully equipped cottages on the river. Rates from $80 to $150 per night. Phone: (352) 628-7072.
- Kings Bay Lodge in Crystal River has rooms from $70 per night. Phone: (352) 795-2850.
- Homosassa River Resort has rooms from $65 per night, as well as three restaurants and a marina. Phone: (352) 628-2474.
- McCrae’s of Homosassa has rooms from $50 to $125 nightly, dining and a marina. Phone: (352) 628-2602.