On my third day of travel around the Nature Coast of Florida, I visited the towns of Homosassa Springs and Old Homosassa (HO-mah-SASS-suh). Meaning “place where the wild peppers grow” in the Seminole and Creek Indian languages, the town’s names may refer to the holly bushes that used to grow in abundance along the banks of the Homosassa River.
There are really two Homosassas: the village of Homosassa Springs is a developed area along a stretch of U.S. Rt. 19 and Old Homosassa is a village along the banks of the river, just a few miles to the west. The first is the area’s commercial center where most of the stores, hotels, and services are located. The second is a mostly residential village with a two motels, a few restaurants, a library and school. It is also the site of most of the seasonal festivals and contests held throughout the year.
I had come to town specifically to visit the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, famous as the home to a second magnitude spring where six female manatees live in captivity. The park has been a tourist attraction since the early 1900â€™s, when trains stopped to let passengers rest at the spring while crabs, cedar, and barrels of salted mullet were loaded aboard (old-timers willingly divulge that during prohibition many of theÂ barrels actually held moonshine). Beginning in 1940, the site was operated as an attraction by various commercial entities. In 1984, the Citrus County Commission purchased the attraction to protect it as an environmentally sensitive area. Today the park is owned by the State of Florida and operated by the Department of Environmental Protection.
To provide the best possible view of the spring, previous owners of the park, then called Homosassa Springs Attraction, installed a floating underwater observatory in 1964. The 168-ton structure, officially named the “Fish Bowl,” allows visitor to see a large variety of fresh and saltwater fish and turtles, all of which can travel unrestricted between the headwaters of the spring and the Gulf of Mexico. However, it is the park’s six permanent residents – West Indian manatees – that most interested me.