Winter is manatee viewing season. These elusive creatures can be seen clearly and abundantly at Blue Spring State Park. Each winter they return to the warmth of this natural spring… one of the largest gathering sites for Florida‘s manatees.

Just a short drive from Orlando, Blue Spring is a Manatee Refuge for the West Indian Manatees. The viewing season runs from mid-November to mid-March… when hundreds of these creatures congregate here.

Manatees need warm water to survive. When the St. John’s River becomes too cold… dipping below 68°… these mammals swim up the Blue Spring Run which stays at a constant 72° year round. Manatees or “sea cows” may look blubbery… yet they only have an inch of fat to protect them from the elements. Together with their slow metabolism, they are very prone to cold stress syndrome.

Early each morning, the state rangers head out in their Manatee Research Vessels (canoes) to take a count. On peak winter days, the manatees can number over 500! The rangers come to recognize these docile creatures… even naming those who return each year. Although still considered a threatened species, in recent years their numbers have grown to the point where the manatee has been removed from the endangered species list.

The Blue Spring waters are so crystal clear that the manatees are very visible. Visitors can hike the 1/3 mile boardwalk path from the St. John’s River to the spring’s headwaters… a perfect opportunity to observe and photograph these gentle creatures in their natural environment.

Quite fascinating to watch how agile manatees are… lolling in the warm waters… rolling up onto submerged logs… doing somersaults… and even swimming alongside alligators! By the way… sea cows, being herbivores, seem to coexist together with alligators just fine since there is no competition for food. Plus… not many animals want to take on a creature averaging 10 feet in length and weighing in at nearly 1200 pounds!

Manatees have no real predators. Yet since they are slow-moving, curious animals, it does leave them vulnerable to injury from collisions with boat propellers. Often you can see evidence of injuries on their backs or tails. These gentle giants are basically defenseless… so man is perhaps their biggest threat.

Come see the manatees this winter at Blue Spring State Park. Once our Florida weather warms up, they will be happily swimming back into the vast waters of the St. John’s River. Catch a close-up look at them while you can!