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The Manatees of Florida’s Blue Springs

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There are few animals as universally popular and liked as much as the Florida Manatee. Yet there are few animals in more danger.

The Florida Manatee, a large and slow moving aquatic animal, is protected by the federal Engangered Species Act of 1973, primarily because they are too big and slow to get out of the way of speedboats. As Florida’s boating population has exploded, the manatee has declined to an estimated statewide population today of under 5,000.

They used to be everywhere. And despite gallant efforts by wildlife managers to protect it, each year there are fewer and fewer.

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It was like this guy was posing for me, taking his breaths every three minutes or so with just his nostrils breaking the surface

But if you want to see one, perhaps the best bet in all of Florida is the Blue Springs State Park, in Orange City, FL, less than 45 minutes northwest of Orlando. Here, every winter from November to mid-April, a spit of water called the Blue Springs Run is filled with the gentle giants, often called sea cows. The Blue Springs Run flows into the St. Johns River and emanates from a deep underground spring that burps up crystal clear water that never varies from a temperature of 72 degrees.

That’s what draws the manatees.¬†Blue Spring is a designated Manatee Refuge and the winter home to a growing population of West Indian Manatees. Some years, as many as 350 of them have wintered in the run, which is only about a half mile long and 100 feet or so wide.

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Most manatees have scars from boat propellers. We could only see two small scars on the head of this one

For RVers, the state park has 51 large and private campsites, all with picnic tables, a firepit and full electric and water hookups.

Jennifer and I found it a delight of a place. It is quiet and remote – there are signs warning about feeding the bears which are often seen in the park – and while the springs are a half mile walk away, a shaded walking path starts from right next to site 18 and takes you right to the boardwalk that parallels the Blue Spring Run.

Towering old live oaks grow from the banks of the run with Spanish Moss dangling down right to the waters surface.

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They spend most of their time submerged and lying on the bottom

Although they call it Blue Springs, it has a distinct green shade to it because of the algae in the area caused by agricultural runoff into the St. Johns River.

The water is amazingly clear. Right from the boardwalk, you can see giant largemouth bass, longnose gar, channel catfish and more than 40 other species of fish cruising past.

And then there are the manatees.

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One of the 30 manatees in the Blue Springs Run the day we visited in early March

On the day we visited, a ranger told us the morning count was 30. As the weather is warming up here in central Florida, the manatees are moving into the river and its tributaries. By the middle of March, they’ll mostly be gone and the river will open to swimmers, snorkelers and SCUBA divers.

We spent several hours strolling the boardwalk and just watching the manatees. They are huge, 800 to 1,000 pounds and ten feet long. Some have grown to nearly 3,000 pounds. We were surprised to learn that they are a relative of the elephant. But when you study them up close, you can really see the resemblance. They are grayish brown in color and have thick, wrinkled skin on which there is often a growth of algae. Their front flippers help them steer, or sometimes crawl, through shallow water. They also have powerful, flat tails that help propel them through the water. Despite their small eyes and lack of outer ears, manatees are thought to see and hear quite well.

Most of them bore deep scars on their backs from boat propellers.

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This delightful boardwalk parallels Blue Springs Run

As if that wasn’t enough, the manatees are also being harassed by an invasive species -the sailfin catfish. These are the same exotic species that are used by fish hobbyists to clean the sides of their aquariums. How they ended up in Blue Springs Run isn’t known for sure but someone likely someone dumped them. The species thrive there and they are now all over the place. They fasten themselves to the backs of the manatees and try to eat the algae that grows on them.

This drives the manatees nuts and they twist and roll trying to dislodge the parasitic hitchhikers. That means they burn more calories. Which means they need more food. And since there is nothing in Blue Springs Run they eat, that means they have to roam out into the St Johns River. The St Johns River in the wintertime is much colder than the springs and the prolonged exposure to cold endangers the manatees health.

It’s the classic environmental domino effect.

We sat and watched the manatees for an afternoon and part of the next morning. We could easily see them lying on the bottom of the Blue Springs Run. About every two to four minutes, they’d slowly rise. Just their nose, and only the nostrils at that, would break the surface. You’d hear them exhale, and then inhale, making a deep puffing sound. Then they’d drop down again.

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A longnose gar in the Blue Springs Run

A couple of the manatees had calves with them, bringing smiles to all those watching.

The Blue Springs State Park instantly became one of our favorite Florida memories. In summer, when the manatees are gone in large numbers and the springs turns into a giant swimming hole, it can get quite crowded. Even now, the campground is filled most weekends.

But bookmark this or make a note of it. You’ll thank me once you visit it. Meanwhile, scroll down for some more photos.

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Blue Springs Run where it flows into the St. Johns River

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  • Thomas Lahman

    No this is looking for you.

  • https://www.facebook.com/john.mccandless.338 John Mccandless

    Great article by Mike Wendland. If you’re taking the kids to Disney World, definitely make a side trip to this national treasure.

  • Debbie MacLeod Andrews

    Sherwood MacLeod

  • https://www.facebook.com/kathy.baugh.98 Kathy Baugh

    I love manatees!!!

  • Maureen

    I so enjoyed reading about these gentle ones and your pictures are beautiful. Thanks Mike.

  • https://www.facebook.com/sharon.mims.54 Sharon Mims

    Beautiful

  • Sharon

    Seeing these creatures is on my bucket list. Thanks for the post, Mike.

  • https://www.facebook.com/nancy.bechtel.96 Nancy Bechtel

    Seen them in Florida…they’re the “elephants” of the water. Very gentle creatures.

  • Paul Konowalchuk Pogorzelski

    Is it sleeping?

  • Dave Miller

    Great looking spot Mike. It is on our list of places to visit. Our snowbanks are over 7′ high around the house and driveway right now so enjoy Florida. Thanks for being our “scout”, Bigfoot Dave

  • Freida

    So happy you made this stop. Amazing place to spend a couple of days. We absolutely love it.

  • Ann

    Mike, you described it beautifully. We visited Blue Springs last February when the temp was down to 33 degrees at night. The water in Blue Springs stays a constant 72 degrees so there were many manatee families that came in from the river. It was a wonderful visit. Best time to see the manatees is in the early morning. Many times in the spring so many people visit that they close the park when all the parking areas are full. Great review of a great FL State Park!

  • Ann Acevedo

    Been to Blue Springs SP several times. It is a wonderful place and seeing the manatees is definitely a highlight!

  • Brenda K Blades Wilcox

    Been there loved them

  • Gerry Powless

    Awww such sweet and gentle creatures :)

  • https://www.facebook.com/armande.moreau Armande Moreau

    Je les ai vue………

  • https://www.facebook.com/paula.thompson.12327 Paula Thompson

    Blue springs is nice, but remember they live all around the state. I saw one in key west while kayaking.

  • Kristin Peterson Hughes

    Love them!

  • Anne-Marie Wolfe

    Love love love manatees!!

  • Neenee Bevis

    I live close to this spring. It’s worth the drive in the winter for sure!!

  • Ed

    Help! Just de winterized and pump hot and cold working. City cold working. But no flow from city hot side. This is a CS adventurous e trek. What am I doing wrong?

  • Emily

    How lovely! Thanks for sharing your beautiful manatee photos and the information about the park. I so wish these creatures could be better protected. I fear for the day when they are all gone.

  • https://www.facebook.com/robert.f.manning Robert Manning

    Several of us swam with them under the 27th Ave. bridge in 1941 when I was 10 years old.

  • Dan Weeda

    Been there, done that! Totally awesome and inspiring.

  • Jimmy Dorf

    Hes lookin for Kris Gunn!!!

  • Liz’n’Bruce

    We discovered Blue Spring while kris-crossing Florida in January in our Roadtrek. there were 334 manatee on one of the mornings we were there in January. With the mist rising up off the spring in the early morning, the abundance of fish, and the clear view of so many manatee, we described the Blue Spring as “magical”.

  • Dave Bates

    We visited Blue Springs last year and at that time there were more than 130 Manatees in the park. This was in mid-March. We were wondering why the gators didn’t bother the Manatees until a park ranger told us that the gators could eat the garfish because the gars just floated there and let the gators eat them. Easy pickins. This is a beautiful place and I would recommend it to anyone visiting Florida.

  • https://www.facebook.com/paul.arguez.9 Paul Arguez

    Been there nice place.

  • Joseph and Virginia Farrug

    We love this article we are home now after touring the Panama Canal there are more animals to see in Florida , Joe and Ginny Farrug