A Manatee Hot Tub, and place of shade, peace, reflections
Blue Spring is a very special place. Imagine standing on a boardwalk platform extending over clear blue-green water, watching a herd of large grey animals swimming, foraging for sea grass along the bottom of the shallow spring, and frolicking. They come up for air every few minutes, snorting noisily. You can see their faces and whiskers, sweet dog-like faces. Spanish moss droops from many trees, especially the Live Oaks, a grey-blue crinkly decoration. A light wind rustles through Sabal Palm trees, the sun sparkles on the water, and you notice a deep feeling of peace.
*These are West Indian manatees. The population at Blue Spring has grown from 14 in 1970 to over 300 in 2010.
*They need temperatures above 66F (18.8C). Here it’s 73F all year, so when the river temperature drops, the manatees move here.
It’s a wonderful experience to visit the park and see the manatees, which swim up the St Johns River and turn into the Blue Spring—a natural hot springs area—for the warmer water in winter. It’s wonderful to see these large, endangered creatures up close and to know that here they are protected and loved. Manatees are endangered, for many reasons, notably boat accidents—all those here are marked/damaged by propeller marks, so these are the survivors. A rope barrier blocks the entrance from St Johns River to the springs area, and along the spring run no boats are allowed, except the canoes of the park rangers.
The spring is a perfect location, a natural geological feature that provides habitat for manatees—the differences in the water temperatures encourage manatees to congregate in this spot during the winter months. They are unique creatures as they are serene and at home in the water but are mammals. They are (with dugongs) the only mammalian herbivores that live permanently in the water. They have to live close to the grass and weeds so that dictates their range, as they have to graze.
The Blue Spring Run is a boardwalk along the edge of the Springs River to the actual spring, with various lookouts along the way. Head for the first lookout just past the Thursby House (the big white structure next to the parking lot), where you’ll likely see many manatees, big and small, the young swimming close to their mothers. They swim lazily in the shallow water, which is crystal clear and a bright blue-green color, and roll over frequently, obviously happy.
(Left: the park rangers count the manatees) If you’re very lucky, you’ll see…perhaps more than 50, which we were fortunate enough to experience early one March. Or even over 200, which happened early in 2011. They swim in herds, and some herds were very close that day. One came right under the viewing platform and we were only a few feet above them so we could see the injuries and scars very clearly. They come up for air and we could see their faces and whiskers—very sweet faces. They paddle around and forage on sea grass on the spring floor. One was cleaning and licking another’s back. We could also see fish cleaning the manatees’ backs.
Many people visit this popular park, and all make favorable comments and seem to care about the animals. Many come for a picnic, to swim in the specially roped-off area (when permitted: no swimming November 15-March 1 in the manatee season), for kids to play, for a canoe paddle.
On another visit we saw Dundee, a large manatee, tagged as he’d been helped “for health reasons”. We followed him as he swam all the way up the Run to the spring source, and played in the pool there, his tag trailing along behind him. This is his 4th tag, apparently, as the tags pull off if caught on a branch or overhanging grasses.
Blue Spring is like a narrow river and opposite the boardwalk it’s thickly wooded with ferns, palms, pines and firs. The boardwalk ends at the source of the spring, a large bubbling pool.
The highlight of a visit here is the manatees, but there is much other wildlife. Fish jump, and plop down with a splash, white egrets and grey herons swoop, turtles swim lazily in clear blue-green water. Note the black gar fish with their big snouts, blue herons, small white herons, scrub jays with their loud call. Anhingas flap their wings to dry and squabble over space on one of the poles dividing the spring and the river. An alligator lies sunning itself on the opposite bank.
We felt very fortunate being able to visit the park. It’s a peaceful place, even with people. It’s a pretty place, with clear blue-green water, and the lush foliage. It’s a hopeful place—as we see these endangered creatures come to the safe haven, their endearing, almost dog-like faces popping up for air; and as we see the reactions of the visitors, especially young people, who hopefully will be concerned enough, stimulated enough to continue to help in the future.
There are information boards telling about the manatees, also the story and history of the park (from the indigenous Indians, through early settlers who came by steamer on the river, to later settlers who came by train). We also visit Thursby House, now a small museum. It was on Thursby Landing on the St Johns River in the days of steam ships.
*The park’s about 75 minutes north of Orlando, close to the small old town of Orange City.
*You can go north on SR 417, the Seminole Expressway (toll), which goes over Lake Jesup with many ospreys perched on the lamp posts, most with a fish in their mouth. SR 417 ends at I-4, so go east on I-4 to exit 114 and follow signs about 5 miles to Orange City Historic District (established 1882) and the park.
*Or, just go east on I-4.
*$6 per car entrance
*When the manatees are there (usually mid-Nov to March) the park can get very crowded, especially on weekends and holidays, and park rangers will sometimes turn away cars if there are too many people. So, try to arrive before 10am or else at about 4pm —it closes at 5:30pm and times are strictly enforced.
*You can also camp there, or stay in cabins, which would be fun for anyone with extra time.