Manatee season in full swing; Florida state park sees record day
Even under a recent threat of possible rain showers, Blue Spring State Park still drew children and parents, eliciting “oohs” and “aahs” at the site of gathering manatees seeking a warm winter spot.
Considered one of the best places in Florida to see manatees in their natural habitat, Blue Spring sees human visitors from all over the world, many of whom come specifically to see the gentle creatures as the winter chill pushes manatees out of the St. Johns River and into the warmer spring.
This winter, though warmer with some sparse days for gathering manatees, set the all-time single-day park record high of 566 manatees during a daily morning count in early January. That number came close to the usual 600 individual manatees usually counted in an entire season at Blue Spring.
“They were all ready to warm up,” said Michael Watkins, park manager of that banner day. “Usually, depending on how things go, we see 100 to 300 manatees daily.”
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Dave Michaelson, a park service specialist, said it’s hard to tell where most of the manatees originally came from because most of the year they remain cloaked in dark, brackish water that gives the mammals plenty of cover. But Watkins said a large number of the manatees that congregate at Blue Spring in the winter come in from the St. Johns River and its tributaries.
It’s not entirely clear how manatees who may spend most of their time hundreds of miles away, know to migrate to Blue Spring when the temperature drops.
The manatees are attracted to Blue Spring between November and March because its constant 72-degree water is warm compared to the rest of the surrounding waters, Michaelson said. The large, docile mammals can’t stay in water colder than 68 degrees for extended periods of time. So they travel from far and wide to Blue Spring, which basically acts as a warm bath for them.
“The manatees come here when the water starts to get cool and the temperatures get colder,” Michaelson said.
Despite the high number of manatees at the beginning of January, the critters have not gathered in such numbers throughout this winter season. Because the weather and St. Johns River water overall have been warmer than normal and cold fronts have been shorter, manatees have not congregated at the springs quite as much during warmer days. Watkins said they see plenty of the animals when cold snaps occur, but they tend to leave once it warms up gain.
“I would say counts (right now) are below average, just because it’s a warmer season,” Watkins said.
Manatees are still considered a threatened species, and many of them show scars from boat propellers. But their overall population has rebounded significantly since the early 1970s, when fewer than 40 of them made their way to Blue Spring each winter.
He said the best time to see the manatees is right when the park opens at 8 a.m. Because it’s a warmer season than most, many of the manatees only stick around in the morning, before the water heats up. Then they head out into the river.
“We don’t really have longer cold fronts to keep them here longer,” he said. “So they come to visit in the morning and then go about their day.”
This story originally published to news-journalonline.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.
Blue Spring State Park
WHERE: 2100 W French Avenue, Orange City
HOURS: 8 a.m. to sunset all year
PARKING: passes are $6 per vehicle
INFORMATION: Visit their website or call 386-775-3663