NEWS

Beyond Destin: Wakulla Springs

Savannah Chastain
A territorial alligator rushes into the water to ward off an intruding alligator.

Destin has a lot to offer, and although its beaches are world-famous and its seafood delicious, there are hundreds of hidden treasures in the surrounding area of Northwest Florida that yield for fun adventures, day trips and weekend getaways. This column which will be featured on Wednesdays, will follow the wanderings of reporter, Savannah Chastain, and explore the many opportunities in Destin’s surrounding area. I invite you to explore with me Beyond Destin.

When I think of iconic Floridian animals there are three that top the list: dolphin, alligators, and manatee. And while Destin boasts a plethora of dolphin on any given day, it is an extreme rarity to catch a glimpse of the other two in our emerald waters.

Until last month I had never seen a manatee, nor had I witnessed Florida’s resident reptile in the wild, so determined to experience these native animals I searched until I found Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park.

I discovered that Wakulla Springs is the closest location to Destin to view manatee in their natural habitat, and although sightings of the sea cow are not guaranteed, I jumped at a chance to see the endangered animal. A quick call to the park revealed that the manatee were active and abundant, easily spotted from the riverboat tours the park offers hourly. So I planned a surprise birthday trip for my husband, and bringing along my trusty camera we got ready to see these exciting animals first hand.

As we waited to board our tour, my husband and I decided to check out the water along the boat dock, and before long we had spotted a small alligator stalking through the water in the shade. I was elated but a bit surprised at how close the alligator was to the swimming portion of the spring, but decided that it must not cause much alarm as hundreds of people were happily splashing about in the water.   

Not even two minutes after leaving the dock we spotted our first manatee, the abnormal creature swam close to the surface of the water showing us its hairy back before swimming deeper into the spring.

As we continued the tour our knowledgeable guide pointed out historical sites, native birds, plants and even insects called doodle-bugs. Before long, passengers got the hang of spotting wildlife and calls of ‘look over there,’ and ‘did you see that?’ rung out throughout the boat.

As we neared the next bend we were in for a big surprise as a large alligator sunning on an island decided to chase another alligator swimming too close to his territory.

Rising up on all fours the alligator ran into the water and caused a splash, scaring the other reptile away. I felt like I was on a National Geographic safari, and our guide informed us that scientists from across the globe come to Wakulla Springs for research.

Our guide informed us that Wakulla Springs is the largest and deepest fresh water spring in the world and stays at 68 degrees year round. Its extensive underground caverns stretches for miles and reaches depths of 300 feet. And divers have been researching the spring since the early 1950’s and have discovered fossilized remains of the pre-historic mastodon, a creature similar to the wholly mammoth.

In years past glass bottom boats operated in the springs allowing riders to view the fossils 80 feet below. However, the spring is now too murky and the glass bottom boats are out of commission indefinitely.

After our tour we decided to grab a bite to eat, and although most visitors brought a picnic lunch, we had planned to check out the restaurant in the lodge for lunch.

The fully operational historic lodge stands directly above the spring and features 27 guest rooms, a large marble-floored lobby, a restaurant, a gift shop and a snack bar. Originally built in the 1930’s by businessman Edward Ball, the lodge is often utilized for weddings and private events due to its beautiful architectural features and stunning view of the springs below.

After lunch we finally decided to brave the chilly water and donning our snorkeling gear we plunged into the spring. There wasn’t much to see but a few small fish on the sandy bottom of the spring, but I felt safer with my goggles, still a bit wary of alligators.

Two floating platforms offered a spot to dry off, or jump back into the spring and another, two story diving platform gave an additional thrill. We gave the high dive platform a go, but after just two jumps we were both shivering so badly that we chose instead to sprawl out in the sun on the large grassy bank beside the spring and thaw out for a bit.

Also available at the park are hiking trails, covered pavilions with grills, and a small playground. If you forget your towel there is no need to worry as a small shop near the bathrooms sells towels, inner tubes, snorkel gear, and other items you may have forgotten at home. So get ready to experience a different side of Florida, and plan an adventure out to the Wakulla Springs.    

WANNA GO?

EdwardBall Wakulla Springs State Parkis located at 465 Wakulla Park Drive Wakulla Springs, Florida; about a three hour drive East of Destin. The park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset 365 days a year and cost $6 a vehicle. Boat tours begin at 9:40 a.m. and end at 4:30 p.m. Cost for the boat tour is $8 per adult, $5 for children three to 12 years old and free for those under three. For more information about the park call 421-2000 or visit www.floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings/