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Meeting the Manatees

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

A self-guided boardwalk at Blue Spring State Park has a dual purpose. It provides an
excellent land-based platform for watching manatees swim, sleep and rest while the younger
calves cavort and play; these prehistoric throwbacks are fascinating to watch. The
boardwalk also takes visitors through a lush hammock to the Blue Spring itself. The same
pristine beauty enjoyed by Florida’s earliest residents still can be seen today.
Manatee-watching begins after the first winter cold snap, usually in late December. It
peaks in mid-February in an average year and tapers off by the end of March. Happily, this
generally coincides with the arrival and departure of the Northern snowbirds and their
motorhomes. Related to their distant cousin, the elephant, manatees are air-breathing
mammals. They surface for air about every three to five minutes. When resting, manatees can
stay submerged up to 20 minutes. They do not have ears or eyelashes, but they have fairly
good hearing, and their blue or brown eyes can distinguish between colors. Manatees look
like gray shadows moving through the water and are sometimes hard to see. When they play
and roll, you might see their heads, flippers, backs and tails come out of the water. Under
the water, you can see the whole animal. Manatees prefer water 3 to 7 feet deep and cannot
survive in temperatures below 68 F, so they seek warmer water when temperatures drop below
that. Adult manatees are large animals, averaging 10 feet long and weighing between 800 and
1,200 pounds. They have been known to reach 13 feet and weigh as much as 3,500 pounds;
several this large have been seen at Blue Spring. When they are born, calves weigh 60 to 75
pounds and are about 4 feet long. Manatees may live as long as 60 years, but do not form
permanent bonds when breeding. Females mature for breeding at about 5 years old and males
at 8. On average, one calf is born every five years, after a yearlong gestation period.
Mothers nurse their young for up to two years, and calves often can be seen feeding from
under their mothers’ flippers. People can see these actions from the viewing dock at Blue
Spring quite well. Manatees are herbivores, or plant-eating animals, and replace worn teeth
throughout their lifetime. They spend six to eight hours a day feeding, using their
flippers to steer and a flattened, rounded tail to push through the water. The slow-moving
creatures eat 10 percent to 15 percent of their body weight each day. Blue Spring offers
swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving in a crystal-clear, 72-F spring. Diving at the spring
can be fun, particularly if a manatee swims over you. Scuba divers must register at the
entrance station between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., with an up-to-date certification
card and a partner. Aggressive swimming or diving with the manatees is not permitted. They
are still high on America’s endangered-species list. Canoes may be rented in the park for
trips on the Blue Spring run and the St. Johns River. Many campers bring their own kayaks,
too. It’s a very sobering experience to have a 2,000-pound animal swim silently up beside
your canoe. With good reason, however, they are called “gentle giants.” Discover Florida
Excursions also offers a two-hour narrated nature and ecological cruise on the beautiful
and historic St. Johns River. Cruises depart daily at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. From the
accessible fishing pier, anglers can find an abundance of bluegills and blue cats, in
addition to largemouth bass, shellcrackers and speckled perch. A Florida freshwater fishing
license is required for anyone over 16 years old. Blue Spring Enterprises’ concession stand
offers canoe rentals, snacks, camping supplies and limited groceries. The park has 50
rustic RV campsites, located in a sand-pine scrub. Each site has a table, water,
electricity and a grill. There are no sewage facilities at these sites, but there is a dump
station in the park. Pets with proof of rabies vaccination are permitted in the camping
area. Blue Spring State Park has two separate picnic areas. There are covered pavilions
with grills located at these areas for groups. One area also has a large covered barbecue
pit and can be reserved, for a fee, from October through March.

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