Folks in Orange City, Fla., (pop. 6,604) needn’t thumb through a farmer’s almanac or stay glued to a weather forecast to predict when a cold front is moving in. All it takes is a quick trip to Blue Spring State Park.
If the manatees start congregating, locals slip on an extra layer of clothes.
It’s been the same ever since park biologist and Orange City native Richard Harris can remember. “It is amazing when you get that first big cold front … they’re here,” says Harris, who’s been with the park for five years but has watched the manatees since his childhood in the 1960s.
The manatees have put the 1882 town on the map. Inhabited for hundreds of years by the Timucuan Indians, who were drawn to the area’s waterways and natural springs, the lush, sub-tropical scenery is still a big draw for outdoor adventurists and visitors.
Like snowbirds descending south for winter sunshine, the manatees—sometimes as many as 100 at season’s peak—swim in, seeking the spring’s cozy 72.5-degree waters. The annual ritual begins in mid to late November when the surrounding water of the St. Johns River nears 68 degrees—a temperature signaling manatees to migrate.
Through March the manatees will come and go—sometimes leaving Orange City’s balmy weather and pine thickets for select locations even farther south—but Harris says the best time to see them are the coldest months of January and February. Also, it’s best to come a day or two after the cold front, when a thick fog no longer covers the spring.
Some of the manatees have made Blue Spring their winter home since 1970, when park ranger Wayne Hartley started tracking their visits. He can identify most of them by the scars they’ve accumulated throughout their travels.
Hartley names them on a whim, sometimes after a person who’s volunteered with the manatees. Patrick was named for Patrick Rose, an underwater photographer active in the Save the Manatee Club, which helps protect manatees and their habitats.
Still others earn their names from behavioral patterns (Lunatic never paid much attention to his mom, Luna). And sometimes schoolchildren get involved, as they did in the early ’90s when they named a young calf Kowabunga during the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze.
While Hartley is continually fascinated by the gentle giants—usually measuring 9 feet long and weighing 1,000 pounds—he laughs at the high expectations of some visitors. Manatees, it seems, are the ultimate couch potatoes, and shyness is their trademark.
“Soon as they’ve gotten past the cold dark waters … they lay down,” Hartley says.
Occasionally they’re playful, maybe nudging a fallen palm frond or each other. But as Hartley explained to one visitor, you have to take what you can get. On that day one manatee butted another, while a different one rolled over. “This all happened inside of 45 minutes,” says Hartley, laughing.
The manatees at Blue Spring are Florida manatees, an endangered subspecies of the West Indian manatee—one of the world’s four species. They look a bit like a walrus without tusks and have thick skin and stiff whiskers. Their tail is flat and rounded at the end like a paddle, and their upper body sprouts short forelimbs. They dine solely on aquatic plants.
Hartley estimates only about 3,000 Florida manatees remain. Their deaths most often are attributed to collisions with boats and loss of habitat. Other problems include disease and excessive cold.
During the “off season” most of the Blue Spring manatees stay in the St. Johns River, either 65 miles to the north around Palatka or 15 miles to the south at Lake Monroe, Hartley says. (Other habitats include estuaries or coastal areas with seagrass beds.) But a few hit the road, such as Millie, who’s been spotted up and down Florida’s east coast on the inland waterways.
“She’s a traveler,” Hartley says.
Park officials track the manatees’ travels through an interactive data base in which statewide participants record sightings. As for how they find their way back to the spring each year, Hartley gives a simple explanation: “They just know the way.”
Park officials also do their part to ensure the manatees have a safe environment during the season. They float barricades, post “no swimming” signs, clean up litter, and prohibit boating. All this to ensure they’ll be back next winter.