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Florida’s Fishbowl

Florida’s Fishbowl

  • Feb 11
  • By
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

 

During a trip to Crystal River, Florida (known as the manatee capital of the world) to swim with manatees, my family and I decided to revisit a lovely state park in Homosassa that we enjoyed while full-time RVing through Florida in 2018. The Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park is a charming “Old Florida” state park with a lot of history and nostalgia in addition to their beautiful sanctuary for rescued native wildlife. It is named for the philanthropist, Ellie Schiller, who donated generously to many environmental and educational causes in Citrus county and the Nature Coast area.

This beautiful gem on Florida’s Nature Coast has been a magnet for people and wildlife for centuries. The town is built around its stunning centerpiece, Homosassa Springs, the largest of the thirty springs in the area. It is a first-magnitude spring, with millions of gallons of clear spring water bubbling out into the Homosassa river, which then flows into the Gulf of Mexico. There are three vents that release saltwater and freshwater into the springs, so there are species there that tolerate both freshwater and saltwater, like manatees and at least 34 species of fish. The Seminole tribe lived along the banks of the river and springs, and with all of the abundant fish and wildlife and the crystal clear spring water, I can see how they wouldn’t have wanted to live anywhere else. They called it “Homosassa,” or “place where the wild peppers grow.” Sadly, the U.S. government removed the Seminoles from their land in 1830, and white settlers began to take over the land. In the early 1900s, the springs and land around it became a major tourist attraction. People traveled to Homosassa Springs by the “Mullet train,” and would take a dip in the refreshing springs while the train was loaded up with fresh fish like mullet, cypress lumber, and spring water. Over the decades, it was owned by multiple private owners and companies that ran it like a theme park and housed animals that were used in Hollywood films. In the 1940’s, it was called “Nature’s Giant Fishbowl,” and a huge three-story observation tower was built next to the springs, to better view the wildlife below. In the 1950’s and early 60’s, exotic and native Florida animals, including the famous black bear Buck from the series “Gentle Ben,” were housed at the park by the Ivan Tor’s Animal Actors company.  In 1964, developers wanted to turn the land into an RV park or condos. Luckily, a concerned group of local citizens formed an association called Citizens to Save Our Springs. Their grass roots work to save the land led to the property being purchased by the Citrus County Commission in 1984 in order to protect the environmentally sensitive area. The state of Florida later purchased it and it became a 210 acre Florida state park and wildlife sanctuary for injured and orphaned Florida wildlife in 1989.

 

 Most visitors normally start at the main visitor’s center on Suncoast Boulevard and take a pontoon boat or tram into the park, but that is not possible currently due to Covid, so we visited the west entrance to the park on Fishbowl Drive instead. The first visit we made in 2018 was pre-Covid and during the Spring, so we were able to go inside the buildings and enjoy warmer weather. It was quite a difference in 2021 due to the pandemic and the weather. We wore masks, no special programs were available, the main visitor’s center was closed, and there were no boat or tram tours due to Covid. We skipped the closed indoor buildings and lower deck of the underwater observatory, and bundled up in the chilly breeze. We still really enjoyed our visit, especially my youngest daughter, who wants to be a zookeeper or veterinarian when she grows up. The park is set up with a winding 1.10 mile paved trail and boardwalk loop accessible for strollers and wheelchairs, so you can visit native animals like Florida panthers, black bears, alligators, river otters, Key deer, flamingos, and a variety of other wildlife all along the way. With the exception of an African hippo named Lucifer, all the wildlife is native to Florida and includes many rescued animals that were injured or orphaned and cannot return to the wild. They even have a special area for injured manatees to be rehabilitated until they can be released back into the springs.

As you meander down the path to find the alligator pond, there is an interesting surprise for first-time visitors to the park. An African hippo named Lucifer (known as Lu) has been a resident there since 1964 and is the oldest hippo in captivity in the world, at 61 years of age. He was born at the San Diego Zoo in 1960 and came to the park in 1964 to be used in Hollywood movies. He had quite the career in adventure films in the 1960’s and 70’s and had a best friend named Susie the donkey. When she died, he didn’t want to act anymore in films. Today this aging animal actor gets to enjoy his retirement swimming in his very own pool, eating giant bales of hay to his heart’s content. Lu is much loved by his keepers and the residents of Citrus county, and even has his own Facebook page. He usually has a group of admirers at his enclosure and he seems to enjoy the attention. He has his very own “Lu groupies.”  Be forewarned though…if you stand near the south end of Lu, you may be in for a very smelly surprise! When hippos defecate to mark their territory, their tail starts to twirl like a poop sprinkler, and anyone in the area up to 30 feet behind them gets showered in hippo dung! There is a very good reason for the bright yellow diamond “Splatter Zone” sign located next to his enclosure. 

So how did a 6000 pound African hippo end up staying at an animal sanctuary for native Florida wildlife? In 1989, the state of Florida bought the land and turned it into a state park. They decided to sell all of the exotic animals to other zoos and sanctuaries. The locals were so fond of Lu that there was a public outcry at the thought of him leaving and many citizens of Florida sent letters and a petition to the governor of Florida, Lawton Chiles, pleading with him to allow their beloved Lu the hippo to stay at the state park. The governor was amazed by the local love for Lu and decided to make him an honorary citizen of Florida! 

Lu was definitely the highlight of the park for my littlest one, who made all of us laugh on the way to the state park because she kept clapping her hands and saying, “I just can’t wait to see Lucifer!” This greatly amused her teenage siblings. She had to visit Lu twice during our visit to the park because she enjoyed watching him swim and wanted to return to see him munching his lunch of fresh hay.  What our teenagers will remember the most about visiting Lu was an eccentric “Lu groupie” that kept loudly baby-talking to the hippo and asking him in a high-pitched sing-song voice, ‘Are you going to go poo poo, Lu Lu?” My kids could barely contain snorts of laughter and I had to send them off down the boardwalk. We couldn’t get away from the baby-talker because she followed us to the manatee bridge and commenced loudly baby-talking to the manatees under the bridge! It was hilarious and annoying at the same time. It still makes me giggle as I write about it. We took a left when she took a right, and we were able to enjoy peace and quiet on the rest of the visit. Phew!

My favorite part of the loop around the park is the flamingo pond in the wetland bird area. I love seeing the flash of coral pink in the distance as I walk down the boardwalk. It’s so enjoyable watching the flamboyance (that’s a group of flamingos) of lovely American flamingos feeding and displaying with synchronized head turns and wing flaps. There are many other beautiful native birds featured along the path like Woodstorks, Whooping Cranes, Roseate Spoonbills, Pelicans, Bald Eagles, Barred Owls, Burrowing Owls, and my favorite native raptor, the stunning Crested Caracara. The park is so popular with wild birds that there are often many native freeloaders like pelicans, woodstorks, and herons that stop by for free food and to hang out with the resident birds! It’s an excellent place for photographers to get some nice up-close shots of native birds.

Many of the mammals chose to go into their heated bedrooms behind the scenes on that chilly winter day, so we didn’t see much of them. We did see the new black bear, Maximus, curiously watching the park rangers fixing something outside of his enclosure. I was very disappointed not to see the two rescued Florida panthers up close, but I did glimpse one prowling at the back of the heated indoor area. The most active mammal we observed were the river otters, who were having lots of fun zipping through the water and diving. They didn’t seem to mind the cold weather. 

I really enjoyed how the park highlighted each of the animals or species with signage that explained their history in the park and their life story. Unfortunately, because of the injuries they sustained, they cannot return to the wild, but they are cared for by keepers and rangers who care about them as individuals with their own life story, just like us. I also enjoyed all the historic photos on the walls of the visitor’s center as you make your way into the park. It’s pretty incredible to think of how much things have changed since the Seminole people lived along the banks of the aquamarine springs and all the generations of people who have come to see nature’s giant fishbowl.

The park has a small group of manatees that are captive residents on one side of the spring. Normally, you can go underneath the floating Fish Bowl Underwater Observatory to see them gracefully swimming under the water with the plentiful schools of fish, but the lower platform was closed due to Covid. The park has installed a TV with an underwater camera so you can watch them swimming under you. It’s so beautiful gazing into the crystal clear azure springs and seeing the schools of thousands of graceful Crevalle Jacks, snapper, and enormous silver snooks spiraling around the manatees. The manatees have their own fish cleaning crew that follows them and nibbles the carpet of green algae off their huge bodies. When we visited in 2018, it was amazing to walk under the floating observation deck to enjoy the beauty of nature’s fishbowl. Manatees came right up to the windows to look into our eyes.  In 2021, it was still beautiful to look down from the top of the floating Fish Bowl Underwater Observatory to the schooling fish swirling around the manatees beneath us.

We also saw aggregations of wild manatees visiting the 72 degree springs in abundance. There is a wonderful new riverwalk bridge over the turquoise springs in the park, which is a peaceful place to look out and view wild manatees coming to huddle together and stay warm. There were about a dozen gathered around the bridge, resting and feeding, and more gathered out in the middle of the springs. A couple of calves were cuddling next to their mothers, and one had ventured off to the shallows to eat some vegetation on the shore.

This unique old Florida state park offers so much historic and natural beauty for visitors to enjoy. Two visitors centers, two gift shops, two cafes, a picnic area, a birding nature trail next to the park, and the opportunity to see so much amazing wildlife on a pleasant and meandering walk through the beautiful scenery of the springs. Keep in mind if you are traveling with dogs, this is one of the Florida state parks that does not allow dogs due to the wildlife living in the park. They do offer kennels for your dog during your visit. We left Zorro the Adventure Pup napping in the RV for this visit.

 

 

Link to park

 

 

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