Saturday, April 14, 2012

Florida 2012 - Week 6

In Crystal River, we stay in our first private RV park instead of a state or federal park.  Big difference.  Here, the sites are really close together and we get really unlucky parked between a couple of "seasonals" - people who stay the entire season (summer in this case).  During our second night, the folks on the one side of us are partying so loud, it's hard for us to sleep, even though I ask them at 11pm to keep the noise down (11pm is also "quiet time" in the park).  Not to go on about it, we complain the next morning to the office and get an upgraded site on their "lake" in a very quiet area of the park where we spend the last night of our stay.  Plus, they refund our one bad night.

Brad with a Gopher Tortoise on the trail
For entertainment, we spend one afternoon cycling in the Crystal River Preserve State Park on the 7-mile loop trail.  We are told by a couple of locals that we won't see any wildlife, but we see a cottonmouth snake and two gopher tortoises.  The snake and one of the tortoises I almost run over on the trail, breaking hard at the last minute.  Cottonmouth snakes are very venomous, so we have to be careful.  As the snake is stretched out across one side of the path, Brad moves to the opposite side so the snake is between us.  As soon as Brad steps too close for comfort, the snake instantly coils into a strike position.  I unfortunately miss that shot, but get a few other good ones.  This trail is great riding, and easy on the hard-packed sand surface.  The palm and pine forest is lush, with several water holes and a creek or two.  We also see only a blur of a wild boar in the bush, but we definitely hear him grunt as we startle his foraging.  So great wildlife viewing when we weren't expecting it.

Manatee eating lettuce at Homosassa Springs
As recommended, we visit the Ellie Shiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Homosassa Springs just south of Crystal River.  The park accommodates native Florida animals that are injured, hand-raised or unable to return to the wild.  There are, of course, manatees and alligators, as well as a Florida panther, bobcat, black bear, numerous birds like flamingos, hawks, eagles, egrets, and a variety of fish, snakes and turtles.  There is also an eastern couger here - she had been hand-raised and was given to this park when she got too big for her owner; and a hippo - "Lu" who used to appear in TV shows in the 1960s but was retired here as an attraction when the park was privately owned.  He will live out the rest of his days here.  There is a manatee show with a park volunteer.  He feeds these large aquatic mammals heads of lettuce.  They must eat 10% of their body weight everyday, and they are strictly vegetarian.  The manatees swim near the spring which is a hole 35 feet under the surface surrounded by rock cliff walls.  The park has built an underwater viewing area, which is a sight to behold, with hundreds of fish (snook, perch, and something that looks like a small tuna) and the feeding manatees.  Wow!  What a great place to visit for a couple of hours.

On the day we are to leave, we rise at 5:30am to get a 6:15 boat ride to the springs to swim with manatees near the Three Sisters Spring on the Crystal River.  We spot manatees right away, and one by one ease into the water.  There are four boats of us, about 50-60 people, and the sun has just risen, but the water is warmer than the air.  There are many rules because manatee are protected.  You are allowed only to touch them with one hand as they swim by you and you must not touch their face, flippers or tails.  We are also told not to talk louder than a whisper or very quietly and not to thrash about in the water kicking our feet as this scares them.  One of the manatee has a baby which we see nursing from under its mother's side flipper (this is where her nipples are).  I get to touch the baby, all 500 or so pounds of him, as he surfaces for air which they do about every 5-10 minutes although they can go up to 20 minutes.

We also swim in the actual spring which is down an alley of sorts off the main part of this creek feeding the river.  It's a large, deep hole this spring.  As we are swimming back out of the spring to our boat, our captain/guide says "baby manatee swimming into the spring" and the baby swims right under us.  It's apparently unusual for the manatee to go right into the spring, so this is a real treat.  There are about 4 or 5 manatee swimming with us this morning, which our captain says is the most they've seen here at one time since the winter, when the manatee come here to bask in the warm 72F waters coming out of the spring.  It's a very moving experience.  Unfortunately no photos since we use a disposable water camera, so have to get them developed when we get home.

On Easter Monday, it's off to Manatee Springs State Park, northeast of Crystal River.  Sadly, there are no manatee left in this spring as they've all headed out to the Suwannee River or the Gulf in search of warmer water.  As with most springs, this one is a constant 72F.  There is a lot of wildlife in this park, including deer which hang around the campsites, snakes which hang around the spring meaning I (Marilyn) won't be swimming, and ticks which seem to like Brad.  There are also mysterious sounds at night some of which we can identify as owls, but others - who knows?  Their prey certainly.  It's all very spooky although Grady isn't interested.  He likes watching the multitude of squirrels which chase each other around the trees.  The ground is covered with dead, dry leaves, and every movement sounds like a herd of buffalo.  Also there are many cardinals and other song birds which like to bathe in the water dripping from our water connection tap outside.

swimmers and scuba divers in Manatee Springs SP
Brad swims in the spring a couple of times, but because we saw a snake there on our first day, AND scared it INTO the water, I chicken out.  I just can't bring myself to do it knowing that I could come face to face with a snake.  Now, apparently, these are NOT water mocassins (aka cottonmouth snakes) which are deadly poisonous; these are brown water snakes and are non-venomous.  Even so, I'm not interested in sharing my pool with them.  Other people who come here more frequently say these snakes are always here but they never bother anyone.  I don't want to test the theory.

Brad at Salt Creek on the Lower Suwannee NWR
We also travel outside the park to drive a dirt road between two highways very near the Gulf.  This is the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).  There is a lookout over the estuary (a tidal flood plain that creates its own eco-system) (photo of Brad) and we cross several bridges over creeks along the road, but the water level is very low.  We see lots of tiny crabs, and we hear a wild boar, but see no other wildlife.

We'll be heading home soon.  We'll probably only make a couple of more stops before making the long trek.  Until next time...

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