If you read yesterday's entry, you know that on Monday we decided to go Florida State Park hopping and do De Leon Springs State Park and Blue Spring State Park in one day. If you're ever in Orlando doing the attractions, Blue Spring is about 35 miles away, but it's not a straight hop, so it'll take about an hour to get there.
After our bellies were full from more pancakes than one family should ever eat at The Old Spanish Sugar Mill, we drove about 20 minutes north to Blue Spring State Park. This park has two sides to it - in the summer people cool off in the crisp spring water and SCUBA dive and snorkel in the 120-foot deep natural spring; in the winter swimming is prohibited so that the endangered West Indian Manatee can take refuge in the warm 72 degree spring water, so people stay on the boardwalks and oogle the manatees. Blue Spring is the largest spring on the St. John's River and was once home to Native Americans. Now it's a recreation hot spot year-round and I've heard it often closes on weekends when it reaches capacity. It wasn't crowded at all yesterday, but I can't imagine Monday mornings are busy anywhere.
We were there on an unseasonably cold day yesterday, so we knew we'd be in for a pretty good day of manatee sighting. Every morning a park ranger gets in a canoe and paddles down the length of the spring counting manatees. You can call for a manatee count in the morning or you can just read the sign at the parking lot attendant's booth. When my friend went in January 2008, she said there were about 200 manatees. When we went yesterday there were 52 - still a good number.
There is a large boardwalk that goes alongside the full length of the spring with plenty of places to stop and see the manatees and lots of informational signs. Yesterday it was a windy day, which caused the water to be a bit choppy, which in turn made photographing the manatees difficult. It's much easier to view them with a calm water surface. Nevertheless we saw a lot of manatees even if they didn't photograph well.
It's quite a picturesque area with gorgeous tall palm trees and sparkling blue-green water. The manatees just sort of float around trying to stay warm and the onlookers lean over the boardwalk railing anxiously awaiting one of them to stick a big whiskery face through the surface of the water and take a breath. When one takes a big breath everyone cheers and the photos start snapping. It's a very odd thing to watch groups of people standing around waiting for an animal to breathe.
Unlike watching lightning-fast dolphins play, manatees don't really do much. They're called sea cows for a reason - they just sort of float around and eat grass.
They really are very sweet-looking creatures and remind me of my younger days when I used to swim with them in the back bay behind my house with one of my best friends. Did you know that manatees are the original mermaids? Sailors would see their tails come out of the water and it's how the mermaid legend began. Apparently sailors of yesteryear thought mermaids were bigger-boned than we imagine.
We were lucky enough to see Gene. He's easy to spot with the huge floating tracking device hanging off his tail. He's a large male manatee that was released at Blue Spring in 2006 after 30 years in captivity. This is his second winter at Blue Spring and he looks fat and happy and surprisingly not irritated by the huge float hanging of his rear end. We heard it's on a special hook-up where it'll break free if it gets entangled on something.
There's a lot more to do at the park in the winter than manatee watch. There are river boat tours, hiking, camping and even air-conditioned cabins. You can also tour the Thursby house. This large plantation-style home was built upon a shell mound in the mid 19th century. For some reason Aidan was obsessed with going in the house, so we let him in for a quick look around.
In the middle of a grassy area there's a large dead tree stump that's big enough for an entire family to get in for some neat photo op's. I have a friend who has had family photo's taken in this hollowed out tree stump and they turned out great. My boys? They decided to get in it and peer through the back to pretend they were eaten by the tree. Sigh.
Such is life with two nutty little boys.