Exploring Wakulla Springs State Park and St. Marks Wildlife Refuge

Wakulla Springs State Park

The State of Florida boasts the largest number of fresh water springs in the United States as well as the world. In 2001, the Florida Geological Survey reported there were at least 700 springs. One is located at Wakulla Springs State Park and while staying in Tallahassee for several days, we made a trip to the park to see the largest and deepest freshwater springs in Florida and perhaps the world. The opening to the springs goes down 180 feet and the area is filled with sinkholes and submerged cave systems formed by dissolving limestone. The extensive cave system beneath the springs extends more than 32 miles and serves as a network of channels that supply the more than 250 million gallons of water per day that flows from the springs. The name “Wakulla” could be from the Timucuan Indian word for “spring of water” or “mysterious water.”

View from the diving platform of the park’s swimming area and boat dock in the distance
The springs are home to manatees

It has been two years since we explored Wakulla and I hadn’t taken the time to write about it until now. It has been nice to reminisce and check out the photos again. At the time, the main draws for me were the guided boat tours and the chance to see manatees, an animal we had never seen before. Located above the very large springs are a platform where we first viewed these creatures. Underwater their bodies looked like a long, shapeless blob. It was exciting to see several of them swimming around together.

Manatees gather at Wakulla in the winter months when they are searching for warmer water which stays 70 degrees here year around. Also known as “sea cows,” they are related to the elephant with grayish thick, leathery, wrinkled skin. They are propelled by huge powerful tails but are actually slow swimmers. They are heavyweights, weighing between 1,000 – 3,500 pounds!

That’s me in the orange shirt and hat waving
Bald Cypress trees along the Wakulla River

The ranger guided boat tour was a relaxing journey down the Wakulla River which is bordered by a swamp. We viewed majestic bald cypress trees, alligators and a variety of bird life like anhingas, white ibis and hooded mergansers. I thought it was interesting that the great egret in photo did not seem fearful to be hanging out right next to a very large alligator.

Hopefully a sleeping alligator and an alert egret?
Pied-billed Grebe

Archaeological field work has been conducted here since 1850 when the first mastodon bones were discovered in the springs. More bones were found including a complete mastodon skeleton in 1930, now on display at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee. Since I like visiting state museums, I ventured there another day and saw the skeleton pictured below. As recent as January 2019, another mastodon skeleton was found covered in sediment eight feet below the Wakulla River.

Mastodon skeleton from Wakulla Springs

Hollywood has also found the park to be appealing as a number of movies have been filmed here including a few Tarzan films like “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure” (1941) and the popular “Creature From the Black Lagoon” (1954). Most scenes from the “Black Lagoon” were filmed in California at the Universal Studios Backlot, but the underwater sequences were filmed at Wakulla. If you want to be amused check out You Tube of the cheesy “creature” swimming below the female star. I had never seen the flick, so got a kick out of watching a few of the watery scenes. Movie special effects have come a long way. Film crew from the movie “Airport 77” placed a 70-foot mockup of the 747 into the basin of the springs for the underwater sequences.

Wakulla Springs State Park Lodge

In 1937 a grand Spanish style lodge was constructed and continues to provide rooms and a restaurant. The interior has lots of special touches including a great deal of marble work with the world’s longest known marble bar (70 ft.) in the soda fountain/gift shop. The ceiling in the lobby is beautifully covered with decorative hand painting.

Hotel lobby with hand painted ceiling

After our visit to Wakulla we drove down to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (1931) which is one of the oldest in the National Wildlife Refuge System. It was established to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds. It features coastal marshes, estuaries and is situated along the Gulf Coast of Northwest Florida.

Mark getting some shots with his long lens
Tricolored Heron
American White Pelican

Before our trip we were given a tip that a bald eagle nest with babies could be seen at the refuge (thanks to Anette) and we were able to locate it. Although it was far off, with our binoculars we could watch one eagle feeding a youngster while another parent sat in the treetop above the nest. Mark was able to catch the scene with his camera.

The other birding highlight was the large flock of Redheads. I hadn’t seen this duck in some years, so it was neat to see so many here.

A pair of Redhead males

St. Mark’s Lighthouse can also be found here. The present tower was built in 1842 and is still used today. When we visited, we found the tower and light keeper’s dwelling were being renovated.

St. Mark’s Lighthouse

We were treated to a great sunset at the refuge. I was very glad we arrived before the show!

Sunset on the Gulf Coast

Thanks for checking in – until next time!