TRAVELOGUE: Chillin’ with manatees in Wakulla Springs, Florida

When we get a three-day weekend, my wife and I like to get away — a little bit away, that is. We don’t want to spend half the weekend driving, but we want to get far enough away to feel like a real getaway. As much as we like staying home, you’ve got to have a little balance.

While pondering what to do for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend last month, we wanted to experience something different. Georgia’s Golden Isles are our regular go-to destination, but we had just been there around the Veterans Day holiday in November. My wife then came up with a plan out of left field: “Let’s go kayak with manatees.” I’m not sure what spurred that thought. Perhaps she was looking at me slouched on the sofa and began thinking about fat, slow-moving mammals.

I was cool with the idea, especially as a Parrothead. After all, my favorite musician, Jimmy Buffett, co-founded the Save the Manatee Club back in 1981, and their work has been the biggest key to the manatee’s comeback. Florida’s West Indian Manatee is now considered a “threatened” species instead of “endangered as its population in the state has soared more than 400 percent in the past 20 years to a latest count of more than 7,000.

Unfortunately, the places that seem to draw the most manatees seeking warm spring waters during the winter — such as Blue Spring, Crystal River and Homosassa Springs — were a bit too much of a drive. Then I saw that Wakulla Springs was a reliable spot to catch a glimpse of a manatee or two in the winter. Wakulla Springs is about 20 miles southwest of Tallahassee, a few miles east of small-town Crawfordville and several miles north of the tiny fishing hamlet of St. Marks.

There are not a lot of places to stay in the immediate area, and the lodge at Wakulla Springs State Park was full. A search of VRBO options in the area did not reveal a lot of options, but there was one that sounded adequate with great reviews just a few hundred feet from the Wakulla River. We took a chance and booked it (more on that at the end of this travelogue), strapped the kayaks into the back of my truck and began our three-hour trek south from Perry, Georgia.

The Wakulla River

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The Wakulla River ain’t exactly the Mighty Mississippi. It’s not even the Flint River on which I grew up and where I nearly died in a kayaking accident over a decade ago. The Wakulla is just 11 miles long, from its origin at Wakulla Springs to where it empties into the St. Marks River about 3 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s current is tame, and the waters are smooth and easily navigable until you get to the fence that marks the boundary of Wakulla Springs State Park. We hadn’t dug the kayaks out in nearly two years, so some easy paddling suited me just fine. Besides, I’m still pretty easily winded after a bout with COVID this past summer, and I was looking for manatees, not a workout.

Our VRBO host left us a key to enter a private dock and boat ramp area where we could easily launch the kayaks. We arrived on a Saturday, and by 4 p.m. we were on the water, paddling upstream toward the park and watching the sun sink slowly in the western sky. There were plenty of docks and boathouses along the way and a handful of friendly locals who would wave and say hello. We saw no boats and only one other paddler the whole afternoon. I stuck my hand into the water and it was much warmer than the air as it had just come from the warm springs ahead. It was quiet with the exception of water birds and owls who hooted more and more as the sun set. The current was gentle, but just strong enough that we could pretty much float back to the area from which we’d launched.

Alas, though, we saw zero manatees. Others had spotted manatees here and there in recent weeks, but I was the only fat mammal on the river that day. We would try again Sunday afternoon, but first we would drive a few miles north to Wakulla Springs State Park and see if we would have better luck spotting a manatee or two there.

Indeed!

Wakulla Springs State Park

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Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller)

Wakulla Springs State Park was once better known as Tarzan’s home. It’s where Johnny Weissmuller filmed several Tarzan movies, and it also is where they filmed “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Obviously, that was a long time ago because if such movies were still being filmed there, we’d be seeing “Tarzan vs. The Creature from the Black Lagoon” coming to HBO any day now.

Because the springs at the state park stay at about 70 degrees year-round, this is a popular swimming hole — for people, manatees and Tarzans. We didn’t know much about the springs but heard that there were boat tours to take us all around the park. Certainly these folks would know where to find the manatees. However, Sunday’s boat tour tickets were sold out. Foiled again!

As we stood near the tour’s boat dock, my wife pointed to something in the water about 100 yards away. A few more somethings surfaced. Then a bunch of somethings. Manatees! They were hanging around a platform that jutted out toward the heart of the springs. We speed-walked before they got away. This was our chance, and there was no time to waste.

When we got to the top of the viewing platform, though, we realized we had plenty of time to waste. There were about 30 manatees enjoying the warmth of the main spring, and they weren’t going anywhere fast. In fact, they weren’t going anywhere period. I put my camera on “sport” mode, but then changed it back to normal. Unlike Bigfoot, these slow-moving creatures probably never had a blurry picture taken of them.

As the boat tour came by, we realized that the free platform viewing actually offered a much simpler way to view the manatees and were glad we weren’t able to get tickets. It appeared the boat just kind of wandered around the springs, something we were able to do on the hiking trails at the park — also for free.

Before we left, a girl swam out into the springs to get up close and personal with the manatees. And, yes, you can swim with the manatees at the springs and at a few other places in Florida. I didn’t bring a swimsuit, so I considered going skinny-dipping, but my wife said that we were not allowed to scare the manatees — or other park visitors.

We came to Wakulla to see manatees. We saw many.

St. Marks and the National Wildlife Refuge

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Because we were so close to the Gulf of Mexico, we decided we had to drive down to see what that portion of the “Big Bend” coast looked like before we headed home that Monday. When we think of Florida’s Gulf Coast, the white sand beaches and high-rise condos from Panama City to Destin are what come to mind. This would be nothing like that.

We headed to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. We knew nothing about it other than it was close by, and there was a historic lighthouse there. If nothing else, it would make a great photo op before we began the long drive home.

In short, it was everything you’d hope a national wildlife refuge would be — unspoiled, uncrowded and undeniably teeming with wildlife. Instead of waves made for bodysurfing, the coast was more like a lake with gently lapping waves. There were plenty of walking trails and biking areas, but nothing could really compare to the vistas of the natural beach under the watch of the lighthouse, which dates back to 1830. Since then, it has been through several repairs and renovations, particularly after the Seminole Wars and Civil War, as well as a few hurricanes.

We needed a decent lunch before heading home. We prefer to patronize locally owned eateries over chains, although a couple of places in Crawfordville had let us down. In fact, the best meal we got in Crawfordville was from Zaxby’s when we settled for some comfort food. We decided to see what the town of St. Marks had to offer.

As you might imagine of a town with a population of just over 300, the dining options in St. Marks were not exactly plentiful. But we found a gem — the Riverside Cafe. It had a Margaritavillish vibe, and was located on the St. Marks River. In fact, you could walk onto the docks behind the restaurant.

There was only one other table occupied in this rather large local haunt, but it appeared to be the kind of place that was likely packed on weekend nights. In fact, there was a sign warning that wait times could be an hour or more for food. That was not encouraging. But the fish and shrimp we got were not only delicious, but they were delivered in about 15 minutes. They also had the most delicious hushpuppies I’ve ever tasted. It was not expensive, and we got far more than our money’s worth.

The perfect VRBO

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All I ask from folks who offer homes, condos and cabins on VRBO is that they make the effort to ensure a decent, clean and accommodating temporary home. Sarah, who owns this place, not only tries to get it right, but she does get it right in every way. I’ve never stayed in such a place where every tiny little detail was taken care of — from utensils, to cooking supplies, to perfectly soft towels, a comfortable bed, comfy sofa, nice TV and good WiFi.

If we return to Wakulla Springs — perhaps to kayak with the gators in the summer — we’ll definitely be back in touch with Sarah.

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