Wakulla: Teaming Wildlife at an Extraordinary Freshwater Spring

Ninety percent of the water consumed in Florida comes from groundwater, and every Floridian (not to mention visiting heartlanders and snowbirds) should pay homage to Wakulla Springs—but not just because of the nearly crystal-clear water.

Yesterday, after saying goodbye to Tracy and Taylor, who flew back to Minnesota from nearby Tallahassee, a warm sun burned away the morning fog. Nat and I slipped into shorts the first time this trip (Yes!) and biked the 13 miles to Wakulla Springs State Park. From our slip at Sheilds Marina in the little coastal town of St. Marks, our path paralleled the Wakulla river, which runs nine miles from the springs to the Gulf. Most of the way we followed a paved rails-to-trails pathway, originally built for trains to carry plantation cotton to the coast for shipping to New England mills. Now the quiet wooded trail gave us views into back yards and an occasional bald cypress swamp. We also followed signs down a gravel driveway to buy a jar of tupelo honey, a prized regional mild honey made from the tupelo tree, which grows in Florida’s swamplands.

Wakulla Springs is extraordinary in several ways. First there’s what’s beneath your feet: the longest and deepest submerged freshwater cave system in the U.S. and the fourth largest in the world. The cave results from the region’s extensive karst topography—layers of fossil-rich, porous limestone bedrock formed by ancient sea beds. Water percolating through the limestone over the eons has become slightly acidic from contact with decaying plant matter and has dissolved the soft stone to form extensive underwater caverns. The largest known cavern in Wakulla Springs (the cave system has only been partially explored) is large enough to house a 16-storey building.

Mastodon skeleton

Then there’s the prehistoric archaeology: during the most recent ice age, when coastal sea levels dropped by as much as 300 feet, groundwater levels diminished enough that the springs became a sinkhole used by Paleo-Indian hunters as a pit into which they drove their prey. In the 1930s a geologist found at a depth of 190 feet the fossilized remains of nine extinct mammals, including a full mastodon skeleton, now on view at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee.

But what was most astounding to me about the springs was the incredible variety and density of wildlife. The entire 45-minute guided boat ride we took from the Springs downstream along the Wakulla’s cypress-lined banks was a spectacle of birds, manatees, turtles, fish, and alligators, all of whom depend upon the clear water that flows at 67-degrees year around. We lurched from side to side of the boat to capture pictures of a parade of critters only a few feet away. According to our guide, this biological display gives a glimpse into Florida’s past, when many such springs dotted this part of the state.

Click here for a Wakulla Springs photo gallery.

Tellingly, the park used to offer glass-bottom boat rides for marveling at the underwater life, which was viewable to depths of 65 feet. But as of a few years ago the waters, as clear as they seemed to us, have become too dark. The suspected cause, according to our guide, is polluted runoff from throughout the spring’s watershed, which includes Tallahassee to the north. Fertilizers and other nutrients penetrating the porous sandstone bedrock miles away have been percolating up through the springs. In the way these things work, limpkin, a large crane-like bird, used to be common at the springs, but is no longer seen. The apple snails they depended upon as a primary food source can’t survive in the now tainted waters. Perhaps if more Floridians experienced and appreciated these awesome springs—and understood how common activities are polluting the source of their water—the future of these bellwether springs would be brighter.

Oh—one more reason to visit Wakulla Springs: The place has been a Hollywood outpost, where scenes from several Tarzan movies were shot as well as the Creature from the Black Lagoon. While the latter was being filmed, the stunt man playing the Creature got sick of the heat and humidity inside his heavy rubber costume and quit. One of the lifeguards from the spring’s swim beach was hired to replace him. This opened the door to a new career for the lifeguard, who went on to direct the popular TV series Flipper about a Florida boy and his dolphin.

Today Nat and I are headed back onto open Gulf waters for a crossing of 30 miles or so that will return us to the relative shelter of the Panhandle’s barrier islands. First stop on the return trip to Pensacola will be the quaint historic fishing town of Apalachicola.

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4 Responses to Wakulla: Teaming Wildlife at an Extraordinary Freshwater Spring

  1. Mary Gunderson says:

    Fascinating, John! Wonderful respite from the snowscape outside my window! Eat well and travel light! Mary

    • John Shepard says:

      Hi Mary, Thanks for your comment. We are having a wonderful adventure–presently hunkered down under a tornado watch (we’re at the edge of the system), and we’ve had some other stressful moments as well. One that comes readily to mind would be learning to back our six-ton vessel into a narrow marina slip with a tidal current pushing the bow around while the neighboring yachts on either side each would cost about twice the value of our house to put back together if I messed up too badly—Arrrgh! But then there have been those sunny days crossing open Gulf waters with dolphins cavorting off the stern. All in all–it’s perfect!

  2. RangerRick says:

    Nice stories! Keep ’em coming. I shared the Wakulla photos with our nature center director (an avid birder). She loved them and wished she was there. She did point out that the night heron should be labeled a little blue heron and the cormorant amid spanish moss looked like an anhinga. Perhaps some other folks could verify. Anyway, keep the photos coming – they are great!!

    • John Shepard says:

      Thanks for your comment and for sharing this post with your colleague, Rick. I appreciate your feedback on my bird ID mistakes (not my strong suit). I’ve made the corrections you pointed out, and added another batch of photos (two, I believe, are actually of cormorants—please let me know if I’m wrong).

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