Seasonal residents and vacationing visitors become fascinated with all kinds of small Florida towns every winter, but none are more unusual or intriguing than Orange Park, whose winter residents sport those telltale snouts, pancake-like tails and giant gray bellies. We’re talking about Florida’s popular manatees, which come by the hundreds to warm up in the waters of Blue Spring State Park.
About Blue Spring State Park
Located just 35 minutes northeast of Orlando and 30 minutes southwest of Daytona Beach, Blue Spring State Park is a haven for the gentle giants which find the water in the St. John’s River typically too chilly during the months of late November, December, January and February. Blue Spring, the largest spring thats feeds the St. John’s River, is a 120-foot deep, natural spring called a boil. The water boils up from underground. Though 72 degrees at the surface. The river can drop as low as 50 degrees in the winter so manatees navigate to the spring to warm themselves and their pups.
The maximum number of manatees counted in one day was during January’s cold snap, when 311 sea cows came to the spring at once. Along the length of the spring runs a boardwalk with multiple observation platforms over the river; visibility is always amazing because natural fresh spring water is perfectly clear. A “first magnitude spring,” Blue Spring produces no less than 104 million gallons of fresh water daily, which feeds into the St. John’s, along the park’s southern edge.
West Indian Manatees, also called sea cows, grow to nine feet long and weigh between 800 and 1200 pounds at maturity. Even a young manatee is large, and stays close to “mom.” These slow-moving creatures are herbivores, and rely upon fresh water. Their closest relative is actually the elephant. During “manatee season,” park service employees offer daily interpretive programs.
After March 1, Blue Spring State Park reverts to a watery wonderland for people once again, when it offers swimming, snorkeling, scuba and paddle sports. Families also enjoy picnic tables, barbecue grills, picnic areas, a hiking trail which goes into the woods, and a paved trail across the street, which is reserved for bicycles and hiking. There are plenty of restrooms and parking is plentiful except on weekends, when the park can get overcrowded.
In the fall, the park offers St. Johns River Nature Cruises and guided kayak tours, both of which are terrific family activities. A small snack bar and gift shop offers food, drinks and manatee-themes souvenirs. Family geared activities for fall include St. Johns River Nature Cruises and Kayak tours by a Florida Park Service Visitor Services Provider located along the banks of the St. Johns River; all ages are welcome to participate. You can grab a snack or quick lunch while perusing the manatee themed books and souvenir offerings at the Blue Spring Enterprises snack bar and gift shop.