Steve Stephens, Colombus Dispatch, April 16, 2012
Venturing off the highway on a lark doesn't always work out for the best. But occasionally, the unexpected things a traveler finds on a spur-of-the-moment detour can be the best part of a trip - especially if he finds manatees.
Earlier this year, my oldest son and I were driving north from the Gulf Coast toward Tallahassee, where we planned to take in some Florida history. Well, I wanted to take in some history. Joe, I suspect, was more interested in a good meal or two.
Then I spotted a sign: Wakulla Springs State Park. "Have you ever seen a Florida spring?" I asked my son. "Um," he said, in the way only a hungry 22-year-old can. "At some of these places, thousands of gallons of cool, clear water - an entire river - just pops up out of the ground. Did I ever tell you about Silver Springs down near Ocala? They've got these great old glass-bottomed boats, kind of old-timey, and ... uh, well, maybe there's a place to eat."
"We can check Wakulla out if you want, Dad," Joe said. "I'm in no hurry if you aren't."
Those were the words I was waiting to hear. (All of my children are agreeable - if not always enthusiastic - explorers.)
Even Joe, I think, was impressed when we pulled up to the park's Mediterranean revival-style lodge.
The lodge called up images of an old Spanish mission, harking back to the days when western Florida was a Spanish colony. It was built, we discovered, as a luxury hotel completed in 1937 by financier Edward Ball, who wanted to preserve Wakulla Springs while making some money from it.
Ball spared no expense in the hotel's construction. Today, the lodge still has the original heart cypress beams, intricately painted cypress ceiling panels, art deco elevator and staircase. It has Tennessee marble floors, baseboards, stairwells and countertops. Visitors will find 27 guest rooms, a restaurant, conference facilities and a grand lobby with 16-foot-tall ceilings - of ornately painted cypress, of course. Room rates begin at a remarkably affordable $95.
But the real treat was waiting outside, behind the lodge, where the Wakulla River does indeed gush, fully formed, from one of the world's largest and deepest freshwater springs. Each day, 250 million to 500 million gallons of water pours forth from the spring.
It was only when we got to the walkway at the edge of the spring that we noticed dozens of giant gray blobs floating in the water near the surface.
I could scarcely believe what I was seeing.
I suppose I shouldn't have been so surprised. Florida's freshwater springs, with their clean, relatively warm water, are a natural place for manatees to congregate in cooler weather. But when you're not expecting them, stumbling across 1,000-pound aquatic mammals can be a bit startling.
I've enjoyed watching manatees cavort in the wild on several occasions. (Cavort is a nimble word to use for such ponderous creatures. Perhaps wallow would be more accurate.) But it was my son's first time to experience wild manatees, and he seemed as taken by the creatures as I was.
We climbed to the top of a viewing platform which, in summer, serves as a diving platform for the spring's swimming area. From there we could see the park's tour boats plying the river and watch the manatees, numerous alligators and an amazing variety of waterfowl co-existing - or not.
Suddenly there was a commotion on the other side of the spring.
"I just saw a manatee eat a duck!" shouted a young man about the age of my son.
Joe and I both chuckled under our breaths. Manatees, of course, are gentle herbivores. The park's 600 to 800 alligators, though, are another story. It was one of these reptiles that we'd all seen doing what alligators do.
But it didn't take the waterfowl long to settle back down. Alligators are the risk of doing business if you're a duck in Florida.
Satisfied that the spring was everything I had hoped it would be, we bought tickets for our own afternoon boat tour.
Boat tours started at Wakulla 150 years ago when the first visitors were toted around in primitive rowboats.
Until recently, glass-bottomed boats were the preferred tour boats at the springs. But the water, though it looked crystal clear to us, has clouded in recent years, a ranger told us. Development around Tallahassee is probably to blame, we were told.
"The watershed is only so big, and Tallahassee keeps growing," the ranger said.
Now the park's glass-bottomed boats venture out onto the spring on those rare days when the visibility extends far down into the 110-foot-deep spring. But sightseeing boat tours still go out every day.
The spring and the stretch of river we traversed still look pristine.
There's a lot of history here, too. The park served as the setting for several Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies; the 1954 horror classic Creature From the Black Lagoon; and the disaster movie Airport '77, in which the spring served as a stand-in for the Bermuda Triangle.
Live oaks trailing lush veils of Spanish moss lined much of the spring and river. We saw ducks, egrets, herons, ibises, anhingas, turtles and, of course, manatees. We also saw many alligators - including a beast that is, according to our tour guide, the "smartest alligator in Florida."
The alligator, we were told, sits completely motionless for hours - even days - waiting for impatient vultures to venture too close.
"I've seen him take three vultures that way," the guide said.
We looked where the guide was pointing and, sure enough, there lay a gigantic alligator, perfectly still on a small island - with several vultures eyeing him curiously from nearby branches. The boat couldn't tarry to let us watch the drama unfold, though.
We, too, had to hurry on our way sooner than I would have liked.
We still had Tallahassee on the day's itinerary, and then a long drive back.
That evening, passing the turnoff to Wakulla on the way back to our beach hotel, I regretted that we hadn't known to stay in the park lodge.
But I'm sure that a return trip to the spring would be a delight, even if it's no longer a surprise.