Manatees are sometimes described as being so ugly that they are cute 🙂 These marine mammals are well-loved in Florida. It is not uncommon to see them swimming in the intracoastal waterway or St. Johns River in warmer months. However, winter is the best time of year to see these animals in large aggregations at warm water sites including Volusia County’s Blue Spring State Park. Water in the spring run is a fairly constant 72 degrees year-round.
Because manatees do not have thick blubber layers, they must seek refuge in natural and man-made warm water areas during the winter months. Manatees exposed to water temperatures below 68°F for any length of time can experience cold stress (like hypothermia in humans). There are several populations of manatees recognized in Florida, and each population has its own strategy for staying warm in the winter. The St. Johns River population (about 4% of the total) uses springs, particularly Blue Spring in Orange City, as its winter refuge. The Atlantic Coast population (almost half of the total) migrates to areas from the Indian River Lagoon southward in the winter.
How to watch manatees from home
There are two “manateecam” cameras at Blue Spring State Park, which provide live feed of manatees in the Blue Spring run during the winter months. 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.
More about manatees
The Florida manatee is a subpopulation of the West Indian Manatee. Adults average about 10 feet in length and about 1,000 pounds in weight. Manatees are unusual in that they can live in both fresh and salt water environments. They are mammals. If you get the chance to closely observe a manatee, you may be able to see individual coarse hairs on its body. Females have about a 12 month gestation period. Manatee calves can be born at any time of year. A mother manatee usually has a single calf, although twins are occasionally reported. The mother will nurse her young for up to two years. The manatee’s mammary glands are located under her front flippers. The easiest way to determine whether a manatee is male or female is by seeing an adult with a calf latched on under her front flipper 🙂
Manatees are herbivores, and generally eat about 10% of their body weight each day. In the winter, there is little to no food in the spring run. As air temperatures warm up, manatees will often venture out into the St. Johns River to find some food during the day. They will return to the warm spring water in the evening.
Visiting Blue Spring State Park
If you plan a trip to Blue Spring, 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.
You can learn more about Florida’s manatees with the UF/IFAS Extension Florida Sea Grant 3rd grade manatee workbook series.