Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Black Lagoon and Wakulla Springs

Billed ‘strange and mysterious waters,’ a 6,000-acre sanctuary is hidden away in a quiet corner of the Florida panhandle, 30 minutes from Tallahassee and more than an hour from St. George Island. However the unique cinematic history as well as its incredible geographic features convinced us to make the trip to Wakulla Springs State Park, and we were so entranced that we are already making plans to return!

The deepest part of the spring is just beyond the buoy

The heart of the park is Wakulla springs, one of the largest and deepest in the world. The freshwater springs are a result of the unique geology created by the prehistoric seas that once covered the area; when the seas retreated they left behind sandy soils over limestone, and when water eats away at the limestone, holes develop. The result is called ‘karst,’ and the holes and tunnels (resembling Swiss cheese) are linked in an enormous underground cave system that serves as the aquifer for the region. The freshwater springs are 185 feet deep with a flow rate of 250 million gallons of water per day.

Several underwater scenes for the 1954 horror movie “Creature from the Black Lagoon” were filmed in Wakulla Springs, as well as Tarzan movies from the 1930s, “Return of the Creature,” “Night Moves” and “Airport 77.” The clear water of the deep spring along with the tropical vegetation growing along the Wakulla River (and the alligators that go with it!) make for ideal filming conditions. If you take the boat tour your guide might point out some of the spots utilized most frequently in filming.

One of the River Tour boats making the rounds

One of the boys’ favorite portions of our visit was the boat tour. When the water is clear enough, the Park offers glass-bottom boat tours over the spring itself, however on our visit rainfall (with higher nitrogen levels) and the invasive & exotic species of hydrilla and algae had teamed up to create a dark water day; on these days visibility in the basin is too low to permit the glass-bottom boats to operate. However, the 3-mile River Tour operates 365 days a year (with exceptions for extreme weather) taking visitors up the river among the giant bald cypress trees to see alligators, native birds, turtles and other wildlife up close. The morning of our visit dozens of alligators were taking advantage of the warm day to sun themselves on the banks, and a manatee was seen on its way out to the coast to feed; the gentle giants cruise the waters in the summer, and a pod has been known to winter around the springs where the water stays a constant 70° year round.

See it?

The tour guide was very knowledgeable on the flora and fauna of the park, but also the historical aspects. Archaeologists have uncovered giant Mastodon bones and evidence of inhabitants dating back more than 14,000 years in the area! A complete mastodon skeleton recovered from the spring is on display at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee.

Clockwise from left: white ibis, hooded mergansers, male anhinga (during breeding season flesh around the eyes turns bright emerald green), double -crested cormorants and the common gallinule

The river boat tour presented an opportunity to get up-close views (and identification) of wading birds, anhingas, grebes, ducks, and many others.  A number of species breed and raise their young in the waters of Wakulla River, and migratory species travel through from fall through spring. For boat tour pricing please see the Wakulla Springs website.

A cooter sunning itself among the cypress knees

It isn’t necessary to take the boat tour to see the spring, however. The deepest spot is adjacent to the swimming area, and a dive tower allows for viewing the spring and a two-story perch to plunge into the cool waters. The historic tower used to be four stories; I will admit jumping off the bottom level provided enough excitement for us, and swimming/jumping is at your own risk – no lifeguards are present. Also, swimming and snorkeling are limited to this designated swimming area (alligators!), and although scuba diving is allowed at some designated sinkhole areas, the Wakulla Springs are off limits.

Then and now. Historic photo source here

Another way to see the park is on the 9 miles of trail, either on foot, bicycle or horseback. The Nature Trail leads through southern hardwood and maple-cypress forests, with several state and national champion trees along the way. The entrance to the Cherokee Sink trailhead is on Hwy 61 two miles south of Hwy 267, and leads 1.4 miles to an 80 foot deep sinkhole lake. On the Riversinks Tract of the park visitors can hike the Bob Rose Trail, which follows the cave system and showcases karst features such as dry and wet sinks, swallets, and collapsed caves. On our visit we stopped at Sally Ward Spring, the reason why the area is called Wakulla SpringS, not spring; the second, 18ft deep spring is located near the park entrance and flows into the Wakulla River just downstream of its sister spring.

Placards throughout the park describe the biological, historical and other features that make Wakulla Springs so unique. It was shortly after Edward Ball purchased the property in 1931 that the Historic Wakulla Springs Lodge was built, and period furnishings include a grand piano, marble checker tables, a massive fireplace and the lodges only TV. The Spanish-Moorish style mansion (Mediterranean Revival architecture) is two stories with 27 rooms, lavished with pink and grey marble (including one of the world’s longest marble counters in the gift shop), and cypress beans and ornate hand painted ceilings grace the grand reception room. Upon Ball’s death in 1981 the property went to the State of Florida, and today the Lodge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated as a National Natural Landmark. Even if you’re not staying/dining in the lodge, plan to stop in, if only to see “Old Joe,” the 11’2” stuffed alligator that was a longtime resident of Wakulla Springs before it was illegally killed in 1966.

Visitors should definitely plan on spending the whole day at Wakulla. We utilized picnic tables for lunch, swam for several hours, toured the grounds, took the boat tour and still had multiple things we wanted to do before we left. In the immediate vicinity of the Park you’ll find other points of interest as well, including state capital Tallahassee, St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge and the St. Mark’s Lighthouse (on the Forgotten Coast Lighthouse driving tour), the world’s smallest police station in Carrabelle (plus stop here for coffee!), and the National Forest. That evening our route would take us to a favorite spot for Apalachicola Bay oysters back on St. George Island, and the next day we would be on our way west through Apalachicola and St. Joe, to Panama City Beach.

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