Ask any Floridian to say the first thing that comes to mind when you say Blue Spring State Park
and most likely they'll say it's the best place to see Manatees. The State Park
is just west of Orange City and covers more than 2,600 acres it is the largest spring on the St. Johns River with over 100 million gallons of water flowing out of Blue Spring into the St. Johns every day.
The park is a very popular tourist destination; you can go hiking, wildlife watching, fishing
camping, kayaking, canoeing, SCUBA diving and swimming. Humans aren't the only ones who enjoy the spring tho'. Blue Spring is a designated Manatee Refuge and the winter home to a growing population of West Indian Manatees. Because the spring maintains a relatively warm and consistent temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit it creates a safe haven and the manatees congregate here. The best time to see them is the 'Manatee season' which is mid-November through March; the spring is open for manatee watching but closed to all water activities during this time.
The West Indian Manatee is on the endangered species list and for this reason Blue Spring doesn't permit swimming or diving with manatees this rule, as you can appreciate, is strictly enforced. Don't let this keep you from going to watch them though because they are highly social, animated creatures. You'll always find them in clumps, rubbing up against each other or swimming over each other. If you're planning a trip to see them go a really cold day and early in the morning this is the best time but get there early because the park fills up fast and will close temporarily until overcrowded conditions ease.
Both the St. Johns River and Blue Spring Run are popular for fishing, you can rent a canoe, kayak or go boating and river boat tours are available; the park has plenty of picnic areas and a hiking trail. Keep in mind, however, that mid November -March the waters of Blue Spring Run are closed because the Manatees are there, however the St. Johns River is open to recreation year-round. If you're planning an overnight stay or even a few days stay, air-conditioned cabins, a full-facility campground and primitive campsites are available. The park is open from 8:00 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year. There is a small fee to enter the park and camping fees are separate.
If Blue Spring State Park closes and you'd still like to visit a park you can go to their nearby sister park Hontoon Island. This park is just across the river and is rarely as crowded. It's a great place to enjoy a quiet afternoon, fishing, hiking or simply enjoying nature.
Just 35 miles from the busy Orlando attractions
, Blue Spring is a year-round draw for families, nature lovers, water enthusiasts and people who want to get up close with a manatee.
More Blue Spring State Park Manatee Pictures »
Every year there is the Orange City Manatee Festival
, usually in January that celebrates the Manatee. It's a great family day there area arts, crafts, dancing, shows, games, food, face painting and more. Inside Blue Spring you can watch the manatees, find out about local environmental clubs, watch 1800s artisans, and more. This event is a fund raiser with proceeds going to support Friends of Blue Spring State Park.
The spring was home to mainly Native Americans until it was visited in 1766 by a botanist, John Bartram, others soon followed. The first family to settle in the area was the Louis Thursby family in 1856. The Thursbys built their house in 1872 and it's still standing to this day, when you visit Blue Spring you can actually tour the house. Many of the household items are still there as well as some letters written during that period. The family made their living growing citrus and when the Florida East Coast Railway came through they liked the fact that there was a dock at Blue Spring and built a small railway in Orange City. In the 1890's a killing freeze occurred and wiped out the citrus groves which drove all the industry south. The Thursbys then took advantage of their surroundings, the beautiful spring, the excellent fishing and hunting, and turned to the tourist trade, Mrs. Thursby became the areas first postmistress.
Some changes have been made since then but only to protect the spring. People could drive their cars right up to the bank of the spring up until the late 1960s. All the litter and garbage was damaging to the health of the spring and took away from its beauty. When the state bought the land they cleaned it up and up and restored the spring. Park staff also built boardwalks to keep foot traffic off the ground near the spring and to help preserve the vegetation and prevent erosion.
In 1971 the Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau episode 'The Forgotten Mermaids' was filmed here bringing attention to the manatee and the importance of Blue Spring as a winter refuge this greatly influencing the states decision to purchase the land. Then in 1972 Blue Spring park was acquired by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, this really kick-started it's Manatee Protection Program.
West Indian Manatees
are large, gray aquatic mammals with bodies that are fat in the middle but taper to a flat, paddle-shaped tail. They have two flippers, wrinkled faces with whiskers on their snouts and are so ugly they're cute. The average adult manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs between 800 and 1,200 pounds. Their closest relatives are the elephant and a small, gopher-sized mammal called a hyrax. The West Indian manatee is related to the West African manatee, the Amazonian manatee, the dugong, and Seller's sea cow, which was hunted to extinction in 1768.
It's believed by some that the legend of the mermaid came from early pirates seeing this strange sea life and coming up with the story of it being a creature that was part beautiful woman, part sea creature . Can you imagine their disappointment when they got up close enough to see what the sea cows really looked like?