Manatee Festival, Orange City

Another beautiful day in Orlando and I find myself on the road to Orange City where a Manatee Festival is taking place. It’s a big enough event that it made the local news stations so I’m about to find out what it is.

My GPS came through as good as gold. I spotted the sign for the Manatee Festival just as that annoying female voice sang out “TURN LEFT”.¬† A bit farther down the road I was directed into a makeshift parking lot by attendants that looked awfully young. Maybe I’m just getting old. ūüôā I think they were high school kids. There were several¬† lots, one on grass, another on a ball field. I saw picnic tables on a hill and fairly large restroom facility that looked like it might double as a locker room.

I followed¬†the crowd to a huge field surrounded¬†by booths and makeshift barriers obviously to prevent folks from sneaking in without paying the entry fee. Admission was only $8.00 for adults and $2.00 for children but I suppose that can add up if it’s a large family. The entry fee goes to support the Blue Spring State Park.

At the far end of the field¬†was a stage with a constant flow of performers. The volume was pumped up and a real carnival atmosphere prevailed. Fair food abounded, ice cream, hot dogs, popcorn, a minefield of temptation! In the center was a dog agility ring with shows going on throughout the day. Opposite from the stage and the Bubble Ride , Bounce Houses and other amusements were the vendors. They had everything for sale. I stopped by the photo tent to see how they were set up and check out their prices…educational purposes, of course. They even had a sand castle!

There was the booth from the FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission). That was a cool booth but none of the “Stars” from Operation Wild were on hand when I was there.

To get to the spring and the manatees you took a bus which dropped you off at the park. It was clear that parking at the Blue Springs Park was inadequate for the number of visitors here today. The bus was very comfortable anyway.

Once they drop you off you are right there. Walk straight ahead and there’s the boardwalk. It was crowded so after some fruitless maneuvering I gave up and moved on down the walkway. There were observation decks every few hundred yards so pretty soon I left the crowd behind and was able to get a peek at the spring.

The water was crystal clear.

¬†You could see the fish and sure enough, there were manatees…not one¬† but more like 3 or four. I kept counting¬† and¬† in the end I would say between 15 and 20 in all. They come into the springs to keep warm because the spring stays around 72 degrees all year ’round. When it’s really cold they have had as many as 300 Manatees jammed into the spring to keep warm.

They have to leave the spring to eat. The¬† bottom is sandy and doesn’t support the vegetation¬†the manatees need to survive. The whole section of the river and spring is closed off as a manatee sanctuary but boats were lined up along the border to see the manatees. It was easy to see how¬† they could be injured by a prop from one of the waiting boats.

So finally I was seeing manatees in the wild. It’s not like the pictures you see because¬†those are all taken from an underwater perspective. Because¬†we were on observation decks we were looking down into the water. You could see the manatees but they were almost like ghosts. Some hardly¬†moved at all while others seemed to patrol the perimeter. One of them came in kind of close and settled to the bottom.

About every 20 minutes you could see it slowly start to rise to the surface. Then just the nose would pop up for a breath of air and back down it went. It was easy to sit there under the trees and just enjoy the rhythm.

Of course we had to keep an eye out for the neighborhood alligators. Like the guide said on the eco-safari. This is Florida , if there’s water there’s ‘gators. The alligators don’t seem to pay much attention to the manatees and vise versa. They were on the banks sunning right next to where the manatees were soaking in the water.

The afternoon passed quickly and although I could have wished for better pictures, it was a great experience. I’m so happy I finally got to see a wild manatee. Maybe next trip I’ll take the tour that lets you swim with the manatees.

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Then I might be able to get one of those iconic pictures like you see in all the ads and on the Nat Geo channel.

An Ecosafari

I waved goodbye to Gatorland¬†and headed out to find St. Cloud. As I pulled out of the parking lot my cell phone rang. It was Joe. He wanted to know where I was and where I was going. He had seen a news clip in the morning about a Manatee Festival and since I hadn’t seen any manatees at Weekee¬†Wachi¬†State Park, he thought I might be interested. I thanked him and told him I would take it under advisement. Right then I was heading for St. Cloud for an EcoSafari.

I’m new to GPS so I didn’t know where to find the eta. If I’d known I might have been prepared for the length of the drive. Orlando to St. Cloud wasn’t an issue but getting through downtown St Cloud to the Eco Safari was. I drove and drove. I was supposed to be there to check in by 12:45 but that came and went and I was still driving.

I tried to call to let them know I was on my way but they didn’t have a phone listing. I looked on my receipt¬†from the concierge…nothing thereso I even tried¬† my cell phones 411. They couldn’t find anything either. I alternated between being nervous that I would miss out and angry that I couldn’t reach anyone. Finally I saw a sign and turned down a dirt road which eventually led into a dirt parking lot. I had made it and only about 15 minutes late.

I was supposed to check in at the restaurant. I followed the signs around the veranda to an entry at the back. Once inside a clerk in the gift shop pointed me to a closed-door¬†at the back. I slipped in to see that everyone was watching a movie about the eco-ranch and how it came about. It was a sad story because¬†it was created in¬†a son’s memory. I won’t attempt to give you the whole story because I’d missed half of it but I did arrive¬†in time to get the gist of it.

This Eco-Safari is called Forever Florida. The area consists of 4700 acres of eco-ranch and abuts a conservation area. The land is being preserved the way nature intended. The area boasts 9 distinct Florida ecosystems and an endless array of natural flora and fauna including alligators, black bears, nearly two hundred species of birds and the endangered Florida panther. There was no telling what we would see!

After the movie we all¬†clambered¬†aboard a large swamp buggy for the “Coach Safari”. They also have a “Horse Safari”, Zipline, and a new¬† Cypress Canopy Cycle. Our very personable drive was also our guide. As we headed out he pointed out the sights and explained the type of terrain and eco system we were covering.

At first it was ranch land¬†with the Florida cattle. They have long”ish” horns. They don’t quite reach¬†long horn¬†status like Texas Long Horns¬†but the curved horns still look pretty sharp. the bloodline is being preserved and can be traced back to the spanish who originally brought them. This was a theme I was to hear¬† over and over whenever the topic of Florida Cows came up.

Right off the bat we spotted a hawk. The driver said it was a red-shouldered hawk. It was too far away for a picture but we’re off to a good start.

As we left the grounds of the working part of the ranch we saw a mucky, swampy ditch along the side of the road. In that muck we spotted turtles and alligators.

¬†There were birds in the trees over hanging this little trickle of water. Our driver said “This is Florida and where there is water there will be alligators”.

He was very knowledgable, naming and pointing out all the birds, flowers and even the plants growing in the little ditch.

We saw several Anhinga. At one point we watched one pull its long neck¬†in only to have it shoot out with amazing speed to snag a passing bug. It was like watching a snake strike , not a bird but I guess that’s characteristic of this species.

As we drove along we traveled from swampy to dry and into cypress groves. We saw baby alligators and even white tail deer. No Florida Panthers although we passed markers identifying Florida panther territory.

As we passed through a grassy “savannah” our sharp-eyed guide pointed out a pair of sand hill cranes. It was so hard to see them he had to stop the¬† swamp buggy so we could watch for the motion as the cranes moved through the tall grasses.

We also passed the trail markers for the Cross Florida Greenway, a hiking trail that runs from the tip of the Florida Keys to the Panhandle. It’s to Florida like the Appalachian Trail trail is to the East Coast.

We made a stop at a cypress grove to walk a board walk.

 Our guide pointed out the cypress knees that grow from the roots of the cypress trees. If these knees get damaged then the tree dies.

No one seems to know why. We could see the waterline from the floods when hurricanes go through and damage to the boardwalk. Florida is in a drought at the moment. It was very apparent once the various water lines were pointed out.

It wasn’t too much longer after we reloaded when we turned back to the ranch. It was an excellent experience. Since I’d been running so far behind I hadn’t had lunch so I ordered one of the all¬†beef hot dogs they offered. The beef was from their¬†cattle and the hot dogs made on their¬†ranch. They were huge and soooo good! I don’t think¬†I have ever tasted a hot dog that was so good. I guess fresh is best. ūüôā

After lunch I wandered the grounds with the owner’s permission. Thier only advice…watch out for the alligators in the pond!¬† As I wandered around I spotted a cat. I hadn’t seen a cat since I left mine at home but as usual during my trips at some point I will run into someone’s cat. And as is usual the cat says hello in it’s cat-ly way¬†and lets me pet him so I can have my “kitty fix”. ūüôā

Time to find my way back to Orlando.

If you go…I recommend this trip. It was fun and educational but be sure you have good directions and allow extra time to get there.

Gatorland

On Saturday the sun was back out. Originally I was supposed to be attending an all day photography seminar at Busch Gardens but thanks to my budget I didn’t get the registration fee into them in time so I found myself a bit more flush but with time on my hands.

Once again I turned to my friendly concierge. They are an absolutely awesome resource. They are familiar with the area and attractions and even have discounts on tickets if you get them through the resort instead of on your own. I had already searched the internet and had some idea what¬†I wanted to do so now I turned to them to set it all up. I handed over my credit card and gave them my available times and what I wanted to do and they handed me back the tickets and brochures and the itinerary. Couldn’t have been easier.

For the morning I wanted to go to Gatorland. I hadn’t been to a place like that in a long time..years actually…and alligator sanctuaries are big on TV right now with shows like Gator Boys and Swamp People and Operation Wild. I plugged in the coordinates and was off.

I didn’t expect to spend a lot of time at Gatorland. After all, they all look-alike except for the individual’s size but I was sure wrong. I could have spent the whole day there.

The first thing you see when you leave your car is a building with a huge mural meant to look like an old post card from Gatorland.

¬†As you turn the corner there a big “gator head” that makes a great photo spot!

Once in you follow board walks between gator pens, big one, little ones,  medium-sized ones but what really hit me was the birds!

There were a ton of them and they showed no fear.

They sat on the decks right under the alligator’s noses.

Obviously these alligators are well fed and the birds know it.

They had a small petting zoo and some parrots.

In another enclosure were white alligators. 

¬†Each enclosure had educational material posted by the exhibit. In the White Alligator section it was explaining the difference between an Albino alligator¬†and¬† a Leucistic¬†Animal. This was educational for me. I knew about albinos but I had not heard of leucism. I’ll let you look it up. ūüôā

In back of the pens and enclosures there was a little train.

 Riding that was an additional charge but it was only a couple of dollars so I bit. It was a short ride around the grounds. the narrator pointed out more enclosures with animals like Florida cows and emus. There was a salt water enclosure for some crocodiles and well as more alligator pens. They also have a Zip Line over the farm.  Keep your feet up over the alligators!

Back from the train ride I hustled back to the main enclosure for the alligator feeding show.

¬†Here the keepers, I hesitate to call them trainers, were tossing raw meat out to the alligators. The black headed vultures were hopping up and down for scraps. One actually went right up to a big ‘gator and plucked the meat right out of its mouth.

That gator never made a move.

The the keepers tried hand feeding them, teasing them over to the side of a platform and the reaching down as the ‘gator jumped up.

¬†Another way they encouraged the ‘gators to jump was to slide raw chickens down a rope suspended above the water. The ‘gators would swim over and then leap up and grab the chickens. Chomp chomp and it was all over.

I’m sure it sounds gruesome but it was actually pretty interesting. After that show I went back out to one of the many trails that crisscrossed the park. This area was a bird breeding area. The birds love to make their¬†nests near the alligators because¬†the alligators¬†protect them from predators.

¬†Yes they lose a chick here and there that falls out of a nest but the birds seem to feel it’s a good trade-off. It is breeding season now and the Egrets are all fledged out in their breeding plumage. Just beautiful.

By now it was almost noon and time to head to my afternoon appointment in St. Cloud. I wished I’d reserved more time so I could walk the other trails. On my way back I spotted swans and pink flamingos in¬†a pond that seemed to be ‘gator free”.

Some really ugly birds were lined up along the railing. They were big white birds but they had heads that were black and scaly like a vulture. A passing keeper said they were storks. Wow, somehow they didn’t look like I imagined when we used to say the stork brought the baby.