Florida Travel

Florida discoveries: Manatees returning for season to Blue Spring

A manatee glides through the water at Blue Spring State Park.
A manatee glides through the water at Blue Spring State Park. Miami Herald Staff

Alice and Dix came by to show off new babies in early November, and Gator visited about a week later, but activity has been unusually slow around Blue Spring this fall. As with so many things in Florida, the weather has been too hot.

Blue Spring, which runs consistently around 72 or 73 degrees, usually starts drawing manatees in early to mid-November as temperatures in the St. Johns River cool. But with the autumn warmer than usual, it wasn’t until the end of the month that the river temperature dropped into the 60s and manatees — which don’t tolerate temperatures lower than 68 degrees well — started heading toward the spring for warmth. By mid-week, the Save the Manatee Club reported that about 90 manatees had returned, but with temperatures rising again, they weren’t necessarily staying. Spotters saw 14 or 15 at a time in the spring run.

Blue Spring State Park is located on the St. Johns River in Orange City, 33 miles north of downtown Orlando. The spring run is a warm refuge for West Indian manatees in the winter, a playground where people can swim in crystal water after the manatees leave, usually in late March.

During the 2014-15 season, park rangers and Save the Manatee counted 481 manatees who visited at least once. The manatees are identified by scars and other marks, and the regulars — like Alice, Dix and Gator (who loves chasing alligators) — are named. Wayne Hartley, a former ranger who is now with the Save the Manatee Club, posts frequent updates (including the early-season visits by regulars) at www.savethemanatee.org, where you can also watch streaming video from an underwater manatee cam in season.

A boardwalk with observation platforms parallels the 1,050-foot run. During manatee season, people stand at the rail, watching the creatures gliding slowly and doing barrel rolls in the clear water below.

Development of the land around the spring began in the second half of the 19th century. Louis Thursby, an orange grower, purchased it in 1856 and built a house and a steamboat landing. The landing, a stop on the way to Jacksonville, soon bustled with activity. The state acquired the spring in 1972 as part of its efforts to protect manatees.

Manatee-watching isn’t the only activity for park-goers. Usually in April the run opens for swimming, snorkeling and diving. Inner tubes for tubing can be rented at the park; kayaks and canoes can be rented from St. Johns River Cruises. The Thursby House has historical artifacts and exhibits and is open for self-guided tours. The park has 51 campsites that will accommodate RVs up to 40 feet long and six two-bedroom cabins available for rent.

In addition to manatees, a number of threatened animals live here, including the Florida scrub jay and gopher tortoise. You might find armadillos rustling through the underbrush, alligators in the spring run and an occasional black bear nosing around. Wading birds walk at the water’s edge, and many varieties of fish can be identified in the clear water.

▪ Blue Spring State Park, 2100 W. French Ave., Orange City; 386-775-3663; www.floridastateparks.org/park/Blue-Spring. Kayak and canoe rentals by St. Johns River Cruises, 407-330-1612 or 386-917-0724; www.sjrivercruises.com (which also offers a two-hour wildlife tour on the river). Campsite and cabin reservations can be made through ReserveAmerica, 800-326-3521 or www.reserveamerica.com.

Marjie Lambert: 305-376-4939, @marjielambert