Most of us Florida residents were shivering last week as we had our coldest air temperatures of this winter season so far. Yes, our northern friends and relatives laugh as we complain bitterly about high temperatures in the fifties. But these cold winter days do have their advantages—they are the best times to see manatees in local springs.
Many readers may be accustomed to seeing manatees swimming in Flagler County waterways during much of the year. However, they may have noticed that manatees are absent in these waters during the coldest months of the year. This is because manatees cannot tolerate water temperatures below 68°F. Unlike whales and dolphins, manatees do not have thick blubber to help protect them from the cold. If they end up in cold water for any length of time, they can experience cold stress (like hypothermia in humans).
The way that Florida manatees deal with cold water temperatures is to migrate to warm water sources during the winter months. For some populations, this means swimming to the Indian River Lagoon or further south along the Atlantic Coast. The St. Johns River manatees migrate to springs, where the water temperature is a relatively constant 72°F year-round. Unfortunately, there are not good food sources in the springs, so manatees there tend to take trips out into the river looking for food whenever temperatures warm surface river waters slightly. The animals then return to the spring run overnight.
Blue Spring State Park
The closest spring where manatees winter is Blue Spring State Park in Orange City. If you plan a trip there, keep in mind that the park often fills up early during the winter. Once all of the parking spaces are full, additional vehicles will have to wait for one to leave before they are allowed to enter. It is best to plan to get to the park early, especially on cold weekend days. Park visitors should be aware that in-water activities are restricted during winter months. Swimming, diving and boating are not allowed (with the exception of park staff or researchers) while manatees are in the spring run. Manatees are protected, and interacting with manatees (feeding, watering, touching, etc.) is not allowed.
If you cannot make it to the park, there are two “manateecam” cameras there that allow people to see live video of manatees in the spring run. The website also posts updates about the individual manatees that have been seen in the spring run. Many of the manatees can be identified by their characteristic scar patterns. This month, two new webcams were installed at Homosassa Springs State Park. The feed from these can also be seen on the website above.
You can learn more about Florida’s manatees with the UF/IFAS Extension Florida Sea Grant 3rd grade manatee workbook series.