Sunshine River Tours at Homosassa
River and Springs…
The Marvel of Manatees
By: John McNamara
If you live in or have
visited Florida, you probably know of Crystal River for manatee
encounters and sights, but have you heard of Homosassa River
and Springs? If not, consider allowing Sunshine River Tours
show you this great natural attraction. Sunshine River Tours
offers Manatee Tours from November to March, and family fun
Scallop Tours during the summer.
On the way to attend
a Sunshine River tour, you will discover Homosassa, a great
small city south of Crystal River. "Homosassa" is
a Greek word meaning "place of many pepper plants”.
This rustic sea town has plenty to do and see, including Homosassa
State Park and Homosassa River.
Homosassa Springs State
Park is one of the few places where you can be guaranteed to
see manatees year-round. It has an underwater observatory, which
provides a great viewing opportunity without getting wet; you
can get within inches of a manatee! The park also has two bear
cubs that frolic throughout the park. Coming soon, watch for
the opening of Wildlife Walk Phase II with new habitats for
cougars and bobcats, along with a new Wildlife Encounter Pavilion.
My visit to Homosassa
began bright and early at 5:30AM on a cool November day. I was
instructed to meet the driver of the Sunshine River Tours van
at 6AM. That morning the driver, and first mate, was Dolores,
a friendly and happy person who arrived promptly. Dolores told
us some exciting facts about the manatees, as well as Captain
Mike Milsap, the owner or Sunshine River Tours.
After we gathered 5 people
from the highway 19 parking lot, Delores took us on a short
ride to Captain Mike’s storage house to get wetsuits.
Here we carefully picked our suit size in preparation for the
brisk water. The water temperature is, on average, 72 degree,
but when the air temperature is lower than the water, one really
appreciates the use of a wet suit.
Delores continued from
the storage facility to the pick up point, where Captain Mike
was waiting for us. Before we exited the van, we watched an
informative video on what to do and what not to do when swimming
with the manatees. We then made our way to the nicely refurbished
boat, where there was plenty of room for 20 or more people.
Nevertheless, Captain Mike prefers taking only 10 people at
a time. The boat was docked in the old fishing village of Homosassa.
The source of the Homosassa River is a crystal-clear spring
located within the state-owned Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park.
As the river makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico, the water
mixes with saltwater and becomes brackish. Continuing west,
the Homosassa dumps into the Gulf amid many small mangrove islands
and saltwater grassy flats. From the town, Captain Mike headed
east up the river to Homosassa Springs, where we would find
A trip to the springs early in the morning is a necessity in
early November, since the manatees head out to the Gulf of Mexico
later in the day when the waters get warmer. As the season gets
colder the manatees stick by the springs throughout the day
because of the constant flow of warm water. West Indian manatees
may be found in any waterway over 3.25 feet (1 m) deep and connected
to the coast. They prefer water above 70 degrees F (21 degrees
C). Florida manatees rarely venture into deep ocean waters,
however, there are reports of manatees in locations as far offshore
as the Dry Tortugas Islands, approximately 50 miles (81 km)
west of Key West, Florida.
Once we got to the springs,
the sun began shining through the trees, and Captain Mike spotted
the manatees right away. We got prepared to jump into the water.
As the sun got brighter, it was easier to see the manatees.
The entire group of manatees, about 4 – 6 of them, where
busy having a vegetarian breakfast. Florida manatees feed on
over 60 species of plants. These include turtle grass, manatee
grass, shoal grass, mangrove leaves, various algae, water hyacinth,
and water hydrilla. Manatees consume about 4% to 9% (32 to 108
lb. or 15-49 kg for an adult manatee) of their body weight in
wet vegetation daily. These amazing creatures use their front
flippers and large, flexible lips to manipulate vegetation.
They have been seen drinking fresh water from hoses, sewage
outfalls, culverts, and other fresh water sources and also congregating
at river mouths. Most scientists agree that manatees must periodically
have access to fresh water.
We jumped into the chilly
water, and I watched in marvel as these animals ate and swam.
They started to swim down the river as they were eating. I tried
to keep up with these large creatures, but they were more agile
then I imagined. Florida manatees have been clocked at up to
15 mph (24 kph) for short bursts, but they usually cruise at
speeds of 2 to 6 mph (about 3-10 kph) or less. Although manatees
are excellent swimmers, the deepest an individual has been seen
diving is 33 ft. (10 m). They normally feed no deeper than about
10 ft. (3 m) below the surface of the water. In contrast to
whales and dolphins, manatees aren't deep diving marine mammals.
Therefore, manatees' muscles don't contain the high concentrations
of the oxygen-binding protein myoglobin that is typical of other
marine mammals. While resting, manatees can stay underwater
for as long as 20 minutes, although the average interval between
breathes for resting manatees is two to three minutes. More
active and smaller manatees breathe more often.
Ultimately, the morning
was a huge success. We had a solid hour to swim with the manatees,
before they started heading out of the springs and into the
Gulf. Captain Mike had some delicious hot cocoa ready for us
when we got back in the boat, which we were grateful for. We
headed down the river back to the dock. On the trip down, we
ran into a small pod of bottlenose dolphin. I was surprised
at the fact that dolphins swim in fresh water. After following
the dolphins for a while, Captain Mike gave an informative tour
of the river and town.
The town of Homosassa
still has not been over developed like most of Florida. The
result? Quaint homes border the river. There is a tiny island
in the middle of the river that is inhabited by abandoned monkeys
from a circus. This island was named, strangely enough, Monkey
Island. The town maintains a small fishing culture, even as
more and more tourism takes over.
I witnessed a bit of
the local entertainment. The star of the show was Bosco the
Chocolate Labrador Retriever. A professional bowler, Steve Neff,
who owns Neffer’s bowling alley Homosassa Springs, also
owns Bosco. After chatting with some locals, I was told to find
Bosco to witness what he can do. I arrived at Neffer’s
and told Steve that I was there to see Bosco. After a few minutes,
Steve announced on the loud speaker that he wanted to stop all
games so that he could show me what Bosco could do. Steve walked
on the medium between the alleys and dropped a pin in the gutter.
Steve called out ”Here Bosco, here boy!” and out
came Bosco, darting down the gutter, straight to the pin. He
picked up the pin with his mouth, and brought it down the alley
to Steve. Everyone gave Bosco a standing ovation. It was very
endearing, and made me smile all night.
That evening we found
Margarita Grill, a great local place to eat. The restaurant
serves fresh seafood in a pleasant, patriotic atmosphere. All
staff members wore American Flag clothing. In addition to its
unique atmosphere, the food was reasonably priced.
There are other attractions
in the area. Weeki Wachee Water Park might be of some interest.
It’s an older theme park that been around since the 50’s.
The mermaid show might bring back some memories of the Little
Mermaid movie. The park is in bad shape, but there is talk about
putting some money into it for refurbishing.
After spending a morning
with Sunshine River Tours and Captain Mike I was able to enthusiastically
say that I had an incredible experience in Homosassa Springs;
an experience that I would never forget.
Homosassa Springs Contact
Homosassa Springs, FL
Phone (352) 628-3450
Toll Free (866) 645-5727
Homosassa Springs Wildlife
4150 S. Suncoast Blvd
Homosassa, Fl 34446
10200 W. Halls River Rd
Phone (877) GO-WEEKI or 352-596-2062.
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