Monkeying around in Old Florida
Not so long ago, three friends and I embarked on a two-night, three-day self-guided tour of Old Florida. Our route took us to places some of us had been to before, but many decades ago, and mostly forgotten. Our goal was to see Old Florida again through modern eyes.
Long before Epcot, Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World claimed the crowns of tourist attractions in our state, other, smaller attractions drew crowds of visitors to Central Florida. Some of these places are still around, and we gals decided to explore them.
Our first stop was Weeki Wachee, home of the mermaids, a nearly five-hour drive from Amelia Island on the west coast of Florida. The day we visited, a Wednesday, the park was nearly empty, the whole place needed sprucing up, the landscape was languishing, but, yes, indeed, mermaids still performed in underwater shows a few times a day.
And I have to admit, the show was amazing. A handful of young gals clad in mermaid tails and bikini tops braved the 72-degree water to perform underwater ballet-type moves 20 feet below the surface of this large natural spring, one of the deepest in Florida, or so they say. Each mermaid had her own hookah hose with air from the surface that she gulped now and again during the show. They even demonstrated that they could drink a bottle of soda and eat a banana underwater while holding their breath. As they performed, native fish and turtles swam by and got into the action, too. The show, it seems from the promotional photos and videos, has not changed much since the 1940s, but sadly, the spring itself is less clear and the fish less abundant than in days of old.
It was here that we also learned about the spider monkeys in the area. We took the boat tour along the spring run, with vegetation closing in on both sides. At one point, we were shown an old wooden platform that was once the home base for a group of wild-ranging spider monkeys, collected in Latin America and released by a former attraction owner to enhance the boat trip experience, a la Tarzan. But we heard about the problems these monkeys caused, the attempts to steal purses and food items, and the resulting bites to humans. The monkeys, we heard, were captured and sent to a “zoo” a number of years ago.
But in our next stop of the day, just up the road in the little coastal town of Homosassa, we found what might have been the “zoo” – Monkey Island, a pile of rocks installed in the middle of the Homosassa River, in front of the Homosassa Riverside Resort. The spider monkeys here are a mix of descendants from the old Weeki Wachee monkeys and new ones acquired from zoos to round out the collection.
There are now five spider monkeys on Monkey Island. They have been provided with a lighthouse, cedar trees, sleeping quarters, various shelters and jungle gym structures to keep them occupied. These monkeys don’t swim, so they are confined to the island. Twice a day, the folks from the resort bait shop venture to the island by skiff to feed their charges fresh produce, monkey chow and other treats.
Spider monkeys may look cute when viewed across the water from the nearby restaurant and “Monkey Bar,” but that’s as close as you want to be. Barriers and signs around the island have been placed to keep stray kayakers and boaters away. Those who disobey are soon sorry.
We gals chatted awhile with one of the bait store monkey keepers, and he told us about a kayaker who got too close to the island. Monkeys jumped into her kayak, and she had to jump ship and swim ashore. Even those who go out twice a day to feed the monkeys do so with great caution. For the most part, the food is tossed to the island from a distance too far for the monkeys to jump. When they do have to land on the island for maintenance, to catch a sick monkey or other business, it is only with a group, well-armed with poles to keep the monkeys at a distance. Just like in the old days at Weeki Wachee, these folks have found out that these monkeys do bite! But at least here, they are contained and healthy, and people still get to see them.
Old Florida still lives, but it may be a bit safer now for all concerned.
Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.