Take a break from Disney to view manatees

Take a break from Disney to view manatees

By Vivienne Mackie

Many visitors to Orlando, Fla., never get beyond Mickey Mouse, which is a shame as the area has lots more to offer besides all the theme parks.

One example is Blue Spring State Park, Florida's premiere manatee refuge, which is like a manatee hot tub: a place of shade and reflections.

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. Johns River and into the Blue Spring Run. Why do they do this? The water that bubbles up from underground into the end of the small stream (the Blue Spring Run) is warm (72-73 degrees). 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 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 lookout platforms over the water where visitors can stand and look down on the manatees. The water is so clear you can easily see the bottom of the Run.

We went one Friday in early January 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.

It's a privilege to watch these large gray 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.

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 gray herons swoop, turtles swim lazily in the clear water. Note the prehistoric-looking black gar fish with their big snouts, blue herons, small white herons and 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 fortunate to visit the park again. 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, as well as 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).

You can also visit Thursby House by the parking lot, now a small museum. It was on Thursby Landing on the St Johns River in the days of team ships.

Some practical info if you're planning a visit:

— The park's about an hour north of Orlando, close to the small old town of Orange City.

— You can go north on Florida 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. Florida 417 ends at Interstate 4, so go east on I-4 to exit 114 and follow signs about 5 miles to the Orange City Historic District (established 1882) and the park.

— Or, just go east on I-4.

— It costs $6 per car entrance.

— The park features restrooms, a gift shop and a cafe.

— The phone number is 386-775-3663; the website is floridastateparks.org/bluespring/.

—When the manatees are there (usually mid-November 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 10 a.m. or else at about 4 p.m.: It closes at 5:30 p.m., and times are strictly enforced.

—You can also camp there, or stay in cabins, which would be fun for anyone with extra time.

Vivienne Mackie, an Urbana resident and freelance travel writer, is passionate about trying to conserve endangered species. See her blog at viviennemackie.wordpress.com.

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