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Park entrance

Park entrance

Blue Spring Run

Blue Spring Run

Two manatees come up for air

Two manatees come up for air

A Manatee Hot Tub, and place of shade, peace, reflections

Blue Spring State Park in central Florida is Florida’s premiere manatee refuge.

trees

Spot the manatees swimming over there

This wonderful little park (2,643 acres) is an easy drive north from Orlando and a must-see in the winter months if you want to find out about endangered West Indian manatees. It’s the winter home to more than 200 manatees, as these creatures swim up the St. John’s River and into the Blue Spring Run. Why they do this is because the water that bubbles up from underground into the end of the small stream (the Blue Spring Run) is warm (72-73F). This makes the Run warm and a welcome respite from the colder waters of the river. In addition, the Run is roped off and during the winter months no boats, canoes, or swimmers are allowed in, so it’s very safe for the manatees.

It’s a pretty place, as the waters of the spring are bright blue-green, with Sabal palms and huge trees—many live oaks dripping with swathes of Spanish moss—lining both sides. The park has constructed a boardwalk along the Run all the way to the end where the spring bubbles up, and along the way there are look-out platforms over the water where visitors can stand and look down on the manatees.

We went last Friday on a cool day (for Florida) and apparently the park rangers had spotted 233 manatees that day. We could believe it, as we saw more of these giant gentle creatures than we’ve ever seen on previous visits. 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 very clearly the injuries and scars that some of them have from boating accidents.

Manatees swim around the spring bubbling up

Manatees swim around the spring bubbling up

We felt very privileged to watch these large grey animals swimming, foraging for sea grass along the bottom of the shallow spring, rolling over, flipping their tails and frolicking. They come up for air every few minutes, snorting noisily and you can see their sweet faces and whiskers. One was cleaning and licking another’s back. We could also see fish cleaning the manatees’ backs.

Swimming around the spring entrance

Swimming around the spring entrance

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.

Strolling along the boardwalk

Strolling along the boardwalk

We felt very fortunate being able to visit the park. It’s a peaceful place, even with people. It’s a pretty place, with its clear blue-green water, and 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 visited Thursby House by the car park, now a small museum. It was on Thursby Landing on the St Johns River in the days of steam ships.

Gentle giants

Gentle giants

Blue Spring Run---note the viewing platform

Blue Spring Run—note the viewing platform

PRACTICAL INFORMATION:

*The park’s about an hour 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.

See how close they are to the viewing platform

See how close they are to the viewing platform

*$6 per car entrance

*Tel: 386-775-3663

* http://www.floridastateparks.org/bluespring/

*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.

Light snacks at the cafe

Light snacks at the cafe

Trail sign

Trail sign

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