One of my favorite day trips in Florida was our visit to the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. It was our first opportunity to see the fascinating West Indian Manatee up close.
Manatees are one of the animals most associated with Florida. Some times called sea cows because of their habit of grazing on plant life as they slowly move along their way, these gentle giants are a sight to behold. With its crystal clear water, Homosassa Springs is one of the places where you can get a good look at these creatures.
The park puts on a Manatee Educational Program several times daily. You learn about these gentle giants, and get to see them interact with a park ranger. For instance, manatees are quite intelligent and are capable of learning complex tasks. Their ability to learn is on par with dolphins, and they have pretty impressive long-term memory.
It also turns out that they have a love of sweet potatoes. When a ranger enters the water with a bucket full of cut up sweet potatoes, it’s a sure bet that she’ll have a cadre of manatees gather around in short order for their treats. You haven’t lived until you see a manatee poke its mouth out of the water and ask for a sweet potato.
The water at Homosassa Springs is perfectly suited to the manatee, who require a water habitat within a quite narrow range of temperatures. The park is home to several manatees who, because of health issues, cannot be re-released into the wild. They also care for injured or ill manatees until they can be released back into the wild. I loved being able to walk along the canal and watch the manatee graze their way past.
Because of their size there are no real natural threats to the manatee. Unfortunately, they’re considered endangered because of loss of habitat, increased contact with motorized boats, and climate change. Most of the manatees at Homosassa Springs were injured by contact with boats. There have also been several instances of manatee deaths related to algae blooms, a result of rising water temperatures.
There are an estimated 13,000 West Indian Manatees, with about 6,100 of them in Florida.