The Winding Weeki Wachee

11 Jan

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The Florida Nature Coast extends from Pasco county, just north of Tampa Bay, up though the Big Bend to Wakula county in the panhandle. Known for its pristine forests and waterways, this coastline has been gaining international attention over recent years for one of the largest and most unique annual manatee gathering events in the world. Many of the rivers here originate as springs flowing up from the Florida aquifer deep underground. The rivers snake their way from these springs to the Gulf of Mexico maintaining a constant 74 degree temperature year around. The water is as clear as bath water and 98 percent pure, as pure as the spring water you buy in the grocery store. During the winter, thousands of manatees migrate to these rivers to escape the chilly Gulf of Mexico waters. Along with them, nature lovers from around the world congregate to witness the spectacle, kayak, and even swim with the gentle giants. Though not the most notorious thanks to media coverage of hot spots for wildlife viewing like Crystal Springs, the winding Weeki Wachee River may be one of the most beautiful waterways not just in Florida, but perhaps in all of the United States.

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The Main Spring

The river is fed by a large spring near the busy intersection of US Hwy 19 and SR 50 (Cortez Blvd) in Hernando County’s Spring Hill. There is a park entrance for Weeki Wachee Springs on the south side of the intersection. 117 million gallons of water flows from the main spring daily. Such and enormous amount of water has to go somewhere so it forms a shallow crystal clear bay locals call Buccaneer Bay. The entrance to the park is $13 for adults and $8 for kids. It may seem expensive compared to other state parks, but Weeki Wachee Springs is more than an ordinary state park. Buccaneer Bay is a popular swimming and picnicking spot complete with tube rentals, water slides, a snack concession and even a traditional bar. Access to Buccaneer Bay is included with the park admission, but tube rentals and lockers are extra. The main spring is on the south side of the bay. It’s fenced off so no swimming is allowed in the main spring unless you’re a mermaid.

You read that correctly, a mermaid! Weeki Wachee Springs is home to the famous live Florida Mermaid Show that goes back long before Walt Disney transformed the central Florida tourism industry. The name Weeki Wachee can be attributed to the Seminole Indians meaning “little spring” or “winding river.” Interestingly, there is nothing little about the spring. The bottom has never been found to this day. The original Weeki Wachee theme park was established in 1947 by a local businessman named Newton Perry. Intended as a roadside attraction, it grew into a popular tourist destination thanks to the mermaid show. It reached the height of it’s popularity in the 1970s. As the park fell into decay over recent years, the state stepped in to transform  it into a very unique state park. They kept the mermaid attraction which is included with the park admission. Also remaining is a 30 minute boat ride down the Weeki Wachee River from Buccaneer Bay. Ghostly remnants of the old theme park are evident just about everywhere as you stroll through the 538 acre property.

While the main spring and bay that the spring forms may be a haven for the tourists, the real draw for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts lies further downstream. Rent a kayak from one of many local rental venues to really experience life on river. From Buccaneer Bay, the river flows steadily toward the Gulf of Mexico for about 12 miles. Though the spring may be bottomless, the Weeki Wachee is a shallow river, less than 2 feet deep in some parts. It’s also a misleading because of it’s clarity. You may hop in to cool off expecting the water to be waist deep and shockingly realize it’s twice that depth. I mentioned the water is always 74 degrees! If you forget before you jump it, you’ll remember quickly. Though it may look like nice bath water, it’s cold bath water!

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School of Mullet

You won’t be alone in the water either. The water is teaming with fish that are tolerant to both salt and fresh water such as mullet. Schools of large mullet are common well upstream. And yes, there are alligators, just not as common as you might find in other Florida waterways. It’s tough for gators to ambush prey when the water is so clear and cool. You’ll usually find them on the banks warming their body temperature. But even if you don’t see them they are likely lurking around somewhere.

In the summer, manatees migrate further off shore to the warmer gulf water, but in the winter, manatee sighting are common in the deeper parts of the river. You won’t see them near the main spring or Buccaneer Bay. You have to take a trip down river where the curious creatures may even swim up to greet you. Manatees are gentle mammals and they are vegetarians so enjoy the once in a lifetime experience. Take a lot of pictures to share the experience.

The river flows northwest once it leaves the spring through a sparsely populated stretch before turning west into the Weeki Wachee Gardens subdivision. From there, the river widens joining with the Mud River then spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. My dad told me stories of driving up to the Weeki Wachee as a teenager. He even told me they took me there when I was a kid. I don’t remember, but it shows that not much has changed. Sure the land area around it has grown and changed with the times, but the and area within has remained the same. Hats off to the parks department for keeping it that way. Though it may not appear on any national lists of top destinations and thankfully so due to it’s pristine nature, memories are still made here. From a child swimming in Buccaneer Bay to a Florida native taking in the solitude of one of the nature coasts many jewels or a tourist seeing a manatee up close for the very first time, everyone  must appreciate the Weeki Wachee river for being as winding and pure today as it was when the Seminoles roamed its banks.

 

 

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One Response to “The Winding Weeki Wachee”

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  1. The Rolling Hills of Brooksville | Exploring Florida and More - December 11, 2016

    […] While the nation fought the Civil War in the 1860s, eastern Hernando County supplied Confederate soldiers with cotton and lumber. In 1864, Union troops attacked the Confederate-held city of Brooksville to destroy the supply line. Despite a valiant attempt to protect the city, the Confederate troops were defeated in what is now known as the Brooksville Raid. The event is re-enacted each January near Weeki Wachee. […]

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