Even if you've never been to the Sunshine State there is a good chance you've seen at least part of Wakulla Springs. Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, with Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, were both filmed at Wakulla. So, too, the crash scene from Airport '77. The Creature From the Black Lagoon also made his home at Wakulla.
Hollywood directors were not the first to discover the almost mystical charm of Wakulla Springs. Numerous Indian tribes occupied the area over a several-thousand-year period. Aztecs, Toltecs, Timucuans, Seminoles and Creeks all frequented Wakulla, though not usually at the same time. The word Wakulla is of Seminole/ Creek origin with various meanings: "breast of life," ''mystery" or "mysteries of strange water."
Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon once thought he might find the legendary fountain of youth at the river's source. Instead he discovered what some say is the world's largest spring, which exists in much the same condition as it did during the explorer's 1513 visit. More than 600,000 gallons of crystal- clear, 70-degree water pour each minute from the heart of the spring, whose basin covers more than 4 acres.
Thanks to the foresight of financier Edward Ball and the State of Florida, the waters are as clear as ever. Ball, who was adamant about keeping development of any sort away from Wakulla Springs, controlled the property
from the '30s, when he built a lodge there, until 1986, when the State of Florida bought it from a trust and declared it Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park.
Today, it's possible to stay in the small, Spanish-style Wakulla Springs Lodge and Conference Center while you enjoy what the park has to offer - a dip in the spring waters, perhaps, or a glass-bottom boat ride, or a boat trip on the alligator-laden Wakulla River, or just a stroll along one of the nature trails that penetrate several thousand acres of virgin hardwood and pine forests.
The river's many alligators took no notice when the state took over, nor did Henry "the pole-vaulting fish," the famed aquatic acrobat who does his act on demand for visitors on the glass-bottom boat cruise.
It's just too bad "Old Joe" the alligator isn't alive to see it all. Old Joe, all 650 pounds and 11 feet of him, lived at Wakulla Springs on a sandbar across from what is now the small swimming and beach area. The alligator, known for his complacent temperament, never bothered visitors and was one of the most photographed gators in the world. Then, in the early-morning hours of Aug. 1, 1966, an unknown assailant killed him. Outraged, the National Audubon Society and the Edward Ball Wildlife Foundation offered a $5,000 reward, but the money was never claimed. Today, Joe's body resides in the lobby of the Wakulla Springs lodge, in a plexiglass enclosure.
Once hunted for its skin and teeth, the alligator is now protected in Florida, and thrives around Wakulla Springs. The best - and only - way to see Wakulla's gators and many, many other species of birds and animals is the jungle cruise. Offered daily for a small fee, the one-mile tour down the Wakulla River takes you into the heart of the alligator's habitat.
Not more than a minute into the trip we spy our first alligator a few feet off the bow of the boat. Passengers "oooohh" and "aaahhh" but the alligator swims by, oblivious to our presence. This is a wild animal?
"The alligators here at the state park are not tame," explains Sam Cole, the park ranger and tour guide. "The reason they pay us no mind is that the boat we are in acts as a floating duck blind and makes us nearly invisible. Of course, if you were to get out of the boat the animals would scatter."
Cole says that the length of an alligator can be estimated by figuring the distance between its nose and eyes and then changing the inches to feet.
"There are two good reasons for using this formula," he says. "One, as is the case with this fellow, you can often only see the head and not the rest of the body, and two, I sure don't want to take a tape measure and get into the water with him."
There is nervous laughter, even as Cole assures us that alligators are not dangerous to humans. "As long as you stay in the boat," he adds with a smile.
Though alligators are the most visible of Wakulla's natural wonders, they are by no means the only denizens of the swamp. Soon into view come a dozen turtles resting on a log. In the trees above, several large, black birds - anhingas, says Cole, who's also an expert on birds - sun themselves, wings spread. Without warning, the largest dives into the water a few feet in front of the boat. When it surfaces, a fish squirms on its spear-shaped beak. With a quick flip of its head, the anhinga tosses the fish into the air and swallows it whole. Such is the rhythm of life at Wakulla Springs, where on any given river trip more than 150 types of birds might be encountered. Near the river, deer and wild turkey can also be seen, and even the occasional bear.
Then of course there are the snakes. Numerous species live in this cypress swamp, with the most dangerous being the sluggish but venomous cottonmouth moccasin. No poisonous snakes are in evidence today, but Cole spots a water snake on a small tree near the shore and edges the boat in its direction.
"It seems we have two types of groups on this tour," Cole says after pointing out the harmless snake. "One wants to see snakes and the other doesn't." Everybody leans forward for a better look. "Seems like this group wants to see them. Nothing special about this particular snake except that its jumping range is about 10 feet." When everybody leans back, Cole laughs.
In addition to the river journey, Wakulla Springs State Park offers glass- bottom boat tours of the spring itself. (The boats go out only when the water is clear; hard rains can leave it murky for prolonged periods.) At the deepest point, about 185 feet, objects are clearly visible. Many kinds of fish are in clear evidence, as well as mastodon bones pulled from the cavern's depths. Numerous prehistoric fossils have been brought up by divers from the spring and the underwater caverns beyond.
Perhaps the highlight of the glass-bottom boat tour and certainly a mystery in his own right is Henry - the pole-vaulting fish. Henry is a largemouth bass who jumps a pole beneath the water on command. The "command" is a song that the boat drivers chant.
"Maybe it's a conditioned response to the song, or just to the boat engines," explains Cole. "Nobody knows for sure; it could be they're just trying to scratch off parasites by bumping against the pole. Whatever it is, the tourists love it."
Although the wonders of nature may be this state park's primary attraction, a close second is the Wakulla Springs Lodge and Conference Center, built by Ball in 1937. This two-story, Spanish-style inn blends easily with the surrounding forests. There are no television sets in the rooms, and there's no bar. Instead guests find a 60-foot-long marble soda fountain and numerous large marble checkerboards. It seems the big, airy lobby is always host to at least one checkers match.
A spacious porch with distinctive black granite tables provides a peaceful place to relax. The dining room features Southern-style cooking and a large selection of seafood. The atmosphere - as everywhere in the lodge - is casual while the surroundings are elegant.
Whether for a day or a week, any visit to Wakulla Springs is a memorable one. But don't expect Cheetah to make an appearance.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Wakulla Springs State Park is about 14 miles south of Tallahassee. Take State Route 61 south to SR 267, turn east and go a few hundred yards to the park entrance.
A few details: The park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset. There is no camping, but rooms are available at the Wakulla Springs Lodge and Conference Center. Current rates range from $60 a night, double occupancy, to $230 for the three- room Edward Ball Suite. Reservations: 904-224-5950. For information about the park call 904-222-7279.
While you're there: Since Tallahassee is the state capital, you might want to see the Old Capitol Building at Monroe Street and Apalachee Parkway. It's now a museum, dating partly from 1845, partly from 1902. Phone 904-487-1902. Or, tour the new, 22-story capitol, finished in 1977. It looms over the old capitol, in striking contrast, and offers a fine view of the city from the observation deck. Phone 904-488-6167.