Where’s the best place to see masses of manatees on cold days in Florida? This out-of-the-way park may just be the answer.
While it’s common for Florida state parks to be popular in the winter time because of the cooler temperatures, Blue Spring State Park is another beast altogether. Summer attendance during the week is pretty light, while on the coolest of days in January and February the park is very busy.
But not just humans congregate there. In fact, the reason that humans attend in large numbers is that manatees, the beloved aquatic herbivore that is synonymous with Florida, also arrive during Florida’s occasional cold snaps. The colder the air temperature, the cooler the water in the St. Johns River gets and the more uncomfortable the lovable manatee becomes.
Florida’s springs have an outflow temperature around 73 F (23 c) and when the river temperatures dip below that, manatees head to the spring heads throughout the state. Blue Spring is one of the most popular because it’s so close to the St. Johns River. Hundreds of them crowd in the Blue Spring Run, the 300 meter (1000 feet) mini-river that is the outflow of Blue Spring. They’re there to simply stay warm contrary to the discussions between visitors you may hear that mention mating or eating. The run is actually pretty devoid of vegetation and mating season is mostly in spring and summer.
Blue Spring is properly referred to in the singular, unlike Silver Springs or Homosassa Springs which contain several outflows from the aquifer. Many visitors miss this fact as well, but that single spring is one of the largest in the state producing 390,000 cubic meters (102 million US gallons) of fresh water at a consistent temperature every day making it one of the significant sources of Florida’s largest river.
The explorer and botanist John Bartram visited the spring in 1766, 10 years before American independence was proclaimed. There weren’t any settlers in the area, but there had been early native Americans as evidenced by middens (shell mounds) near the spring as well as on nearby Hontoon Island (yet another state park). European habitation didn’t begin until nearly 100 years later when the area surrounding the spring was acquired by the Weismore family. Around that time a dock was built at Blue Spring Run to allow the locals to ship oranges and other citrus north. Eventually the railroad came to the area as well.
Later, the Thursby family bought the property and built what’s known today as the Thursby Plantation House, within sight of the run.
Blue Spring because a sport for tourism – with fishing hunting and swimming being the primary activities. Things changed little from the 1800s through most of the 1900s and indeed, have changed little to this day. In 1972 the Florida Department of Environmental Protection acquired the land and eventually the spring, surrounding land and Thursby House became Blue Spring State Park. It currently has a popular campground and scuba divers can descend into the spring’s cave outside of the “manatee season”.