Wild monkeys in Florida, you ask? Absolutely. They live in Ocala, Florida, along to pristine waters of the Silver River. Many believe they were released or escaped during the filming of the Tarzan movie “Tarzan Finds a Son,” but this was not the case. The monkeys were released by tour boat operator Colonel Tooey to enhance his “Jungle Cruise” ride as to enhance the scenery. He bought six macaque monkeys and released them on a small island. He did not know that macaques are great swimmers and according to locals, they swam off the island within minutes.
Since then, the monkey population has grown to over 1,000 monkeys, but they have faced issues with some calling for their removal citing health risks and diseases. Over 25,000 citizens sign petitions to save the macaques and as of now, the State of Florida still holds that the monkeys don’t belong on the land but officials are no longer racing to clear them out.
This trip has been enjoyed by many boaters and jet skiers alike. “You need to rustle a bag of potato chips to bring them out,” claims Bill Hills, President of Space Coast Jet Riders and highly regarded expert on boating the waters of Florida and most of the Southeast. He was our gracious “Jungle Cruise” guide my first time many years ago. This trip was a combined group trip with the Central Florida Jet Riders and the Jacksonville Jet Riders.
There are a few rides that remind us of why we do this, of why we buy skis, of why we ride. “The Monkey Run,” as we have come to know it, is one of those experiences that makes you think that buying that jet ski was not only a good idea, but a great one. Arriving at Lake Griffin we got that anxious feeling and started to wonder if we would see monkeys that day. For the Monkey Run, we took Lake Griffin north from the Train Depot boat ramp at Herlong Park. It was a quick jog through a small waterway to the south end of Lake Griffin and a seven mile crossing to the top of the lake and on to the Ocklawaha River.
The Ocklawaha River provides a very scenic view of Mother Nature in her prime. From birds to alligators, riding it always gives one a feeling of serenity. Passing Big Pine and Little Pine Islands, we came up to Highway 42 bridge. From there, we blasted up the Ocklawaha River for another seven miles to the Moss Bluff Lock and Dam.
Originally built in 1925, it was a source of hydroelectric power. It was rebuilt by 1969 to what it is today and now serves as a source to control the lake’s elevation as well as provide waterway passage. With a tug of the bell, a call to the lock operator or a simple wave, we entered the lock. The main conversation of the day was whether 30 skis from the Jacksonville Jet Riders and Central Florida Jet Riders could fit in one lock.
The lock operator seemed to think so and with some three wide, we began our 20-foot drop to the lower Ochlawaha level. A small wake zone to the 464 bridge and it was now time to grab some throttle. As jet skis lineup single file as the river supplied plenty of lily pads on both sides (as well as some downed trees) providing some interesting opportunities for maneuvering.
With a train of riders ahead and behind, taking turns became almost second nature. After a few quick rights and lefts, we came up to a No Wake Zone and a quick left turn at the Silver River. Now we started to see the water beginning to clear and the underwater sights coming in to view. We made another right and headed up to the Ocala Boat Club for a quick lunch and to stretch our legs. Then it was a quick run out and back on to the Silver River to go see if we can find those monkeys!
The Silver River runs from its source in Silver Springs. The Silver Springs is one of the largest artesian springs in the world and generates nearly 550 million gallons of crystal clear water daily. It’s also a tourist attraction and glass bottom boat have been operating in the Silver Springs since the 1870s. The Silver Springs has been the site of several films like “Tarzan,” “The Seven Swans,” “Sea Hunt” and “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.” It’s over four miles of No Wake up the Silver River to the Springs, but the monkeys can be seen anywhere along the way.
With nature on full display, chatting and laughing with fellow jet skiers, the time and miles passed quickly until someone further up relayed that they have found some monkeys. With hearts racing with anticipation, first there were a few, with one just relaxing on a branch. And after some calls, more came out. Many more this time, in fact. We saw some large males, some juveniles and even mothers with babies who also came out to see what was going on. They looked straight at us taking pics and videos as if to say, “This group of tourists are quite peculiar in deed!”
They tolerated us and greeted those bearing gifts. Some seemed more excited than others as they moved from branch to branch. Some moved closer to get a better look as us or to see if we had snacks. A quick fight took place over a small piece of fruit, with the larger and more agile male monkey taking the prize. Survival of the fittest at its best. With monkeys and jet ski tourists having their fill of each other’s company and many pictures taken, we continued up to the Silver Springs.
When almost to the Springs, we pass several glass bottom boats filled with tourists. Now we got the fascinated looks and our pictures taken! I guess they were as surprised to see jet skiers as we were the monkeys just an hour earlier!
The Silver Springs lives up to its billing as you can see clear to the bottom. You can see some wooden wrecks, fish and whatever decides to swim on by. With the skis looking like they are levitating on thin air, riders idled around in amazement. Some took pictures, some took underwater videos, some got their feet wet in the cold spring water and others just took in the sights and chatted it up with fellow riders.
With time getting away from us, it was time to head back downstream, which proved to be way faster. Still courteous to boaters, we were even able to get a few waves from kayakers. We rendezvoused with those that didn’t make the trek to see the monkeys or the springs and we all made that right turn back on to the Ocklawaha River at after that pesky No Wake Zone.
With turns memorized a little better this time, we picked up the pace. Ski after ski moved down the river, riders enjoying the way back with fresh thoughts of the springs and for some, finally seeing monkeys. As we made our way back into the lock, the talk was now about when will we would do it again, some trying to get a signal to beat everyone else to posting pics on Facebook and others taking pics of the group and the lock.
Leaving out of the lock, a few stopped to take a quick break with the one taking a short dip. After realizing that log was actually three-foot ‘gator, it is time to go! Heading back down the Ocklawaha River to Lake Griffin, we only had seven miles left separating us from home ramp. It was a quick dash with the faster skis making it in first. Some now with new bragging rights to add to the day’s list of accomplishments. We all made it back in safely and all accounted for. As we pulled the skis out, many riders stood around to chat and share stories and the “did you see that” moments. Most grateful to see the monkeys. It was indeed a great day.