Editors note: Here’s a post from our visiting correspondent MaryKate – this time from right here in Central Florida. Enjoy!
I recently met a friend at Blue Spring State Park, the “Winter Home of Manatees,” for a nature walk and manatee viewing. With many offshoots and observation decks, the wide wooden boardwalk makes for a safe place to enjoy nature and view wildlife during COVID – – – IF you get there early.
The manatee viewing was amazing, even with “just” ~150 manatees on the day that we went. The weather was cooler the week before, and manatee counts were ~ 400! Regardless, we saw plenty of manatees, fish, birds, beautiful scenery, and even this upsidedown-atee!
The park opens at 8 am, and I arrived around 7:55 am, but I was stuck in a line of cars waiting to get in. I’d suggest arriving by 7:40 or 7:45 am to skip the traffic. You can purchase a park vehicle admission pass in advance here, but you can only purchase same day. I recommend buying in the morning right before you head over.
It was relatively empty at the beginning of our morning, and all park visitors were wearing masks and keeping socially distanced. However, by about 9:30 am, it started to get crowded, and many of the late arrivers weren’t as well behaved.
Florida Manatees are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. While this status was officially downgraded in 2017 from endangered, the population is still at risk: in 2020, over 600 Florida Manatees died, with 114 of those deaths being caused by humans (i.e. boat strikes). Want to help? Consider donating to Save The Manatee Club, a nonprofit founded by Jimmy Buffet and Bob Graham, and the world’s leading manatee conservation organization.
We’ve had a few days of cooler weather here in Central Florida – good news if you’d like to see Manatees in the wild! When temperatures drop, they tend to gather in and around springs where the water is warmer than the rest of the environment.
We were over at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City last week for a wonderful family picnic. One of the highlights of the trip was spotting these large gentle mammals from the boardwalk along the spring run.
Many extra activities are planned for this weekend’s annual Manatee Festival. But if you can’t make it now, try later in the winter. The Manatees are often there through March.
Depending on where they are, you can make photos with just about any camera. Up by the swimming area they get very close. Down nearer the river, you’ll want to have a longer lens to fill the frame from the boardwalk. Bring your polarizing filter to help cut glare / reflections on the water surface.
There’s been a lot of news here recently about all the Manatees at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, Florida – so I decided to go over and look for myself.
Around 20 Manatees in this one photo – There were more than 200 there on the day I went and the count’s been over 330 on some recent days.
Louis Thursby bought Blue Spring in 1856 and ran a steamboat landing. The steamboats shipped people and goods up and down the St. Johns River and stopped at the landing until the 1880s. The area became pretty run down until the state purchased the land in the 1960s and established the park.
There’s lots to do: Plenty of picnic areas; Hiking and nature trails; Cabins and a campground for overnight stays; Canoes and kayaks to rent; And you can even take a River Boat tour right from the park.We’ve been several times in the past but I hadn’t visited in years. It brought back very fond memories of tubing down the run from the spring and of our kids shivering in the 72 degree water, but enjoying it so much they refused to get out. When I used to scuba dive (a very long time ago), I dove to the bottom of the spring. In retrospect, that was at least a little reckless – people have died in there.
Info for Photographers
You can’t go in the water when the Manatees are there. But a lengthy boardwalk running from the St. Johns up to the spring provides many vantage points for photos. The Manatees are all along the run, but many congregate in the swimming area where you can get very close.
You must bring your Polarizer to cut the reflections so you can better see the manatees under the surface. Remember this will block a couple stops of light. And since the water is in shade in many places you may be a little starved for light. A camera / lens with vibration reduction / optical stabilization and good output at higher ISOs (~640) will come in handy.
Take a breath – A manatee surfaces at Blue Springs State Park
Tripod/Monopod: They’re allowed, but crowds could make tripods a problem. I left mine at home.
I used a 24 – 120 f/4 lens and was happy with it. I really didn’t want to switch lenses (and polarizers) so the focal length range on this came in handy. At times I wished for a little more reach but I could usually find another Manatee closer to me. I also wished for a wider aperture (f/2.8?), but the stabilization made this lens my best choice.
Best time to visit: Visit during a wintertime cold snap for the best chance of seeing Manatees. They can draw a crowd and the park is closed early to new arrivals if it fills up. Go on a weekday or get there very early on a weekend to make sure you get in. For other activities, you’ll have to work around their schedule – all water activities are prohibited when there’s a Manatee in the water. For swimming, tubing, snorkeling / diving, and kayaking in the spring run go when they aren’t there (March 15th – November 15th).Other: Manatees are the main attraction in the winter, but there are other animals there too. I’ve seen Alligators, wild pigs, and common Florida birds (e.g. Herons, Egrets, Anhingas, Limpkins, Wood Storks, Red Shouldered Hawks, and Vultures). Other folks have reported some not so common Florida Birds like Florida Scrub Jays and Barred Owls, – so keep your eyes open! And there’s a three-story home built built by the original owners that’s worth a visit.
The Louis P. Thursby House was built in 1872 at Blue Springs State Park