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By Dawn S.

It is officially manatee season here in Florida. Mid-November through mid-March is when the weather gets cooler, and these gentle mammals congregate in warmer waters.  Sure, you can see manatees at some zoos, aquariums, or theme parks, but to see them in the wild, doing what they do, is always a treat. So pick up a campervan in Miami and hit the road to see some manatees!

Central Florida

Blue Spring State Park, Orange City

I was certainly treated to a great experience on my recent visit to Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, FL, the winter home to more than 250 manatees.

I went early on a cool December morning when a cold front was passing through, and air temps were in the mid-forties, to increase my chances of spotting them. The park ranger at the gate told me I picked a great day, “This morning’s manatee count in the spring run was 271!” I was stoked. I drove to the second parking lot, near the playground, the kayak rentals, and where the spring run joins the St. Johns River. The parking lot was already filling up. On this day, I saw license plates from New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ontario, and Illinois. The snow birds are here, and they appreciate all that a winter in Florida has to offer just as much as the locals and the tourists do.

LOCAL LINGO: A “snow bird” is someone who lives “Up North” but spends the winter months in Florida, usually retirees who no longer want to shovel all that white stuff. I hear it can be rough.

The manatees feed on the vegetation in the rivers, but when the water temps drop, a growing number of them find refuge in the warm water discharges of coastal power plants, or they head inland to seek out the constant 72-degree waters of local spring runs. Blue Spring State Park is one of the best and most accessible places to see them. Unfortunately, there was a breeze agitating the surface of the water, making it hard to get good photos. But on a calm day, it’s like peering into a fishbowl, and you can see them stacked and huddled together.

I traveled the one-third mile boardwalk through the hardwood hammock of palms and moss-covered oaks to the headsprings, stopping at all of the observation decks protruding over the water. These give visitors a great view of the tilapia, gar, turtles, occasional alligator, and numerous manatees. I spotted a small heron waiting patiently for a chance to snag a meal. A hawk screeched overhead and landed in a nearby tree.

On the first observation deck, I met a young man from Boston who told me there was a manatee hanging out underneath the dock we were standing on. This was his first time seeing the manatees, and he was excited as we waited patiently for it to appear again.  And he was right, just a few minutes later we heard the unmistakable “pfshhh” noise of a manatee sticking his nostrils out of the water to let out and take in a breath of air. They move ever so slowly, and unless they are playing, or get startled, they just mosey along in slow motion.

I joined the crowd on the boardwalk encircling the head spring and aimed my camera in the direction of the deep blue water. We watched a 100 lb calf swimming alongside his 1000 lb mother. This reminded me of the encounter my mother-in-law had with her late husband on their last wedding anniversary together. They visited Blue Spring, it was in January, the count was 30 manatees that day. The water was calm, and they were observing a family group of three. The female was tending to the calf and the larger male was resting nearby on a submerged log. The mom swam over to the dad, and the baby was playing back and forth between the two. Then to her amazement, the male rolled onto his side lifting his flipper over the mom. To her and Papa it was a “manatee hug” and she couldn’t get her mobile phone out and turned on quick enough for a picture. But the memory is one she still treasures.

Blue Spring State Park has a lot to offer besides observing the manatees. Activities include a hiking trail, backcountry camping, self-guided tours of the historic Thursby House, cabin rentals, full-service campground, kayak, canoe, and tube rentals.  You can see the real Florida by taking a 2 hour narrated eco tour with St. John’s River Cruises, or a guided kayak tour with Blue Spring Paddling Adventures.

INSIDER TIP: The park has a limited number of parking spaces and will close to visitors when capacity is reached, and cold weekends during manatee season often fill up before noon. Same goes for holiday weekends during the summer when the spring run is open for swimming, tubing, snorkeling, and scuba diving. So get there early and visit on a weekday.

If you are visiting the Blue Springs area, don’t miss DeLand, named the best downtown in the nation with its historic Main Street full of art galleries, antique shops, and restaurants. You can cook your own pancakes at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill at Deleon Springs State Park. The nearby Gemini Springs in DeBary is also worth a visit. They are part of the paved spring to spring pedestrian/bike trail, have a dog park, fishing pier, and large fields perfect for picnicking and recreation. Camping is also available at the nearby Lake Monroe Park.

LOCAL EATS: Visit the Swamp House Riverfront Grill and Tiki Bar in DeBary for Gator Tail, Catfish Nuggets, Fried Pickles, and Cajun specialties.

Manatees on the Atlantic Coast

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Bairs Cove Boat Ramp, Haulover Canal, Titusville

Another great place to see manatees from land or from the water is the Bairs Cove Boat Ramp on Haulover Canal. Dozens of manatees congregate in the safety of the boat ramp’s no wake zone. We were launching our kayaks in early March to paddle out to Rookery Island and were treated to several curious manatees coming near to investigate our brightly colored boats. Sometimes they get playful and will push your kayak around like it’s a bath toy, or roll over and show you their belly, giving you a cool splash in the process. Many tourists drove up, walked over to the dock and were able to snap photos of the manatees right from shore.

Manatees on the Gulf Coast

Homosassa Springs & Crystal River

Kings Bay, Three Sisters Springs – Swim With The Manatees!

Crystal River and Homosassa Springs on the Gulf Coast, North of Tampa, are the ONLY places where you are legally permitted to swim and snorkel with the once endangered manatee during winter. They have some strict do’s and don’ts that you must be briefed on, so it’s best to use one of the local outfitters. Three Sisters Springs is a paddling paradise and the winter home to hundreds of manatees, making it a must-see.

Did you know?

  • West Indian Manatees are large, slow-moving aquatic mammals who live in brackish coastal waters and freshwater rivers.
  • Manatees eat about 10-15% of their body weight daily, about 150 lbs of vegetation for the average half-ton manatee!
  • Often called a “Sea Cow”, manatees are more closely related to the elephant, due to their prehensile upper lips, and “toenails” on their flippers.
  • Manatees are gentle giants and have no natural enemies. Humans are their biggest threat due to habitat loss and causing injuries or death with boats.

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