Up Close With Florida Manatees

by Country Inns & Suites
Thursday, February 4, 2010

Central Florida’s state parks provide a unique opportunity to see Florida manatees both in rehabilitation and in their natural habitats. At Homosassa Springs and Blue Springs State Parks, visitors can learn more about these gentle giants. By Renée Zenaida
In the woods near Highway 19 in central Florida, a scramble of vines and brush is overtaking a discarded 1950s-era billboard hawking thrills and adventure at Homosassa Springs. The billboard’s image of a manatee, flipper in mid-wave, has faded. But while travelers’ tastes have changed, interest in these endangered animals has grown. Today the former wildlife park is owned by Florida’s award-winning state park system.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is home to several Florida manatees in various stages of rehabilitation, as well as a few former wildlife residents who cannot be released into the wild due to injury or domestication—alligators, river otters and bobcats, among others.

I arrive at Homosassa anxious to see the manatees, creatures so unusual that early sailors sometimes mistook them for voluptuous mermaids. I climb aboard a tour boat for a 15-minute ride down Pepper Creek to the park’s west entrance. Along the creek’s banks I spot five great blue herons, multitudes of basking turtles and a log masquerading as an alligator.

The first sight of the green waters of the spring is a sensory shock after the tea-colored creek. I pause only briefly before rushing to the underwater observation area—a window on the manatee’s world. Myriad yellowjacks, snook, pompano and other fish species swirl in circles, riding the spring’s centrifugal force. Then, unaware of my presence, a metal gray manatee swims effortlessly into view. Its flippers and eyes are tiny in relation to its large, bulbous body, and its algae-stained back is crisscrossed with scars—most likely the result of a collision with a motorboat. Surprisingly graceful, the creature turns and spirals away from me, disappearing with a sweep of its paddle-shaped tail.

The Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, is approximately 10 feet long and weighs about 1,200 pounds when fully grown. The slow-moving animals can be hard to spot as they drift near the water’s surface, and they are often injured, sometimes fatally, by motorboats. Like the manatee I observed at Homosassa Springs, many have scars from encounters with watercraft. Fortunately, Florida has established many manatee zones requiring boaters to operate at slow or idle speeds.

After I leave Homosassa, I am eager to see manatees in the wild. A little over 100 miles to the east is just the place—Blue Spring State Park . When temperatures dip below freezing on cold winter nights, Blue Spring’s constant temperature of 72 F (22 C) attracts numerous manatees escaping the colder waters of the St. Johns River. During a particularly frigid February, the spring run practically brims with manatees. Visitors crowd the boardwalk, following the crystalline run from Blue Spring to the St. John’s tannin-stained waters.

No one knows if the Homosassa manatees will join the remaining 2,200 to 2,600 wild Florida manatees. But as long as they stay, they and their Blue Spring counterparts will help to educate visitors about the need to protect these gentle creatures.

 Renée Zenaida  is a freelance nature and spiritual writer based in Gainesville, Florida.