One of the more exciting features of the “Nature Coast,” as the natives have dubbed this area, is the natural habitat known by the mouthful Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Ellie died in 2009 at age 65. Among other accomplishments, she taught mathematics to children in Tibet and served as a fisheries biologist in the state of Washington. Best of all, however, was convincing her father, Phil Felburn, founder of one of America’s preeminent trucking companies, to create the foundation which, under her leadership, has endowed or contributed to untold numbers of conservation and education organizations.
Homosassa Springs is about 15 miles southwest of Beverly Hills. The Park runs along the shoreline, encompassing 200 acres of which 5 are waterways of the Homosassa River. The Park includes dozens of outdoor wildlife exhibits ranging from black bears and bobcats to alligators and waterfowl.
What it’s best known for, however, is one of the very few winter habitats for the West Indian Manatee. These gentle creatures can’t exist in waters less than 72o, and that’s the minimum temperature of the lagoons within the Park. So they hover and huddle there by the hundreds (thousands?) during the winter months. You can see them from the raised boardwalks and bridges meandering through the grounds, or you can view them in an underwater observatory near their preferred habitat. Seeing them underwater, however, can be blurred by the 34 species of native fish that swim by.
Feeling ambitious? You can actually rent a kayak, wetsuit and snorkel or scuba gear and swim with them. Or get up close on one of the dozens of tourist boats that circle very gently through their habitat. The Park is also equipped to care for them in a “hospital” enclosure. Downtown Crystal River hosts a two day Manatee Festival each January, with music, entertainment, endless rows of vendor booths and themed events.
But wait . . . there’s more. The manatees share their celebrity with of nature’s giant mammals: Lu, the resident hippopotamus. Born in San Diego on January 26, 1960, he is a retired movie star, having appeared in flicks and TV shows as part of the Ivan Tors Animal Actors troupe. The troupe’s winter home was the land now occupied by the Park, and he kinda hung around when it was sold to the state in 1989. He almost was deported with all the other animals, because the park is dedicated to native species. But Governor Lawton Childs granted Lu honorary citizenship, allowing him to stay. His birthday is the occasion of a major celebration each year.
We’ll be covering the Park each year. There’s always more to see, and we wouldn’t miss the manatees.