Another beautiful day in Orlando and I find myself on the road to Orange City where a Manatee Festival is taking place. It’s a big enough event that it made the local news stations so I’m about to find out what it is.
My GPS came through as good as gold. I spotted the sign for the Manatee Festival just as that annoying female voice sang out “TURN LEFT”. A bit farther down the road I was directed into a makeshift parking lot by attendants that looked awfully young. Maybe I’m just getting old. 🙂 I think they were high school kids. There were several lots, one on grass, another on a ball field. I saw picnic tables on a hill and fairly large restroom facility that looked like it might double as a locker room.
I followed the crowd to a huge field surrounded by booths and makeshift barriers obviously to prevent folks from sneaking in without paying the entry fee. Admission was only $8.00 for adults and $2.00 for children but I suppose that can add up if it’s a large family. The entry fee goes to support the Blue Spring State Park.
At the far end of the field was a stage with a constant flow of performers. The volume was pumped up and a real carnival atmosphere prevailed. Fair food abounded, ice cream, hot dogs, popcorn, a minefield of temptation! In the center was a dog agility ring with shows going on throughout the day. Opposite from the stage and the Bubble Ride , Bounce Houses and other amusements were the vendors. They had everything for sale. I stopped by the photo tent to see how they were set up and check out their prices…educational purposes, of course. They even had a sand castle!
There was the booth from the FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission). That was a cool booth but none of the “Stars” from Operation Wild were on hand when I was there.
To get to the spring and the manatees you took a bus which dropped you off at the park. It was clear that parking at the Blue Springs Park was inadequate for the number of visitors here today. The bus was very comfortable anyway.
Once they drop you off you are right there. Walk straight ahead and there’s the boardwalk. It was crowded so after some fruitless maneuvering I gave up and moved on down the walkway. There were observation decks every few hundred yards so pretty soon I left the crowd behind and was able to get a peek at the spring.
The water was crystal clear.
You could see the fish and sure enough, there were manatees…not one but more like 3 or four. I kept counting and in the end I would say between 15 and 20 in all. They come into the springs to keep warm because the spring stays around 72 degrees all year ’round. When it’s really cold they have had as many as 300 Manatees jammed into the spring to keep warm.
They have to leave the spring to eat. The bottom is sandy and doesn’t support the vegetation the manatees need to survive. The whole section of the river and spring is closed off as a manatee sanctuary but boats were lined up along the border to see the manatees. It was easy to see how they could be injured by a prop from one of the waiting boats.
So finally I was seeing manatees in the wild. It’s not like the pictures you see because those are all taken from an underwater perspective. Because we were on observation decks we were looking down into the water. You could see the manatees but they were almost like ghosts. Some hardly moved at all while others seemed to patrol the perimeter. One of them came in kind of close and settled to the bottom.
About every 20 minutes you could see it slowly start to rise to the surface. Then just the nose would pop up for a breath of air and back down it went. It was easy to sit there under the trees and just enjoy the rhythm.
Of course we had to keep an eye out for the neighborhood alligators. Like the guide said on the eco-safari. This is Florida , if there’s water there’s ‘gators. The alligators don’t seem to pay much attention to the manatees and vise versa. They were on the banks sunning right next to where the manatees were soaking in the water.
The afternoon passed quickly and although I could have wished for better pictures, it was a great experience. I’m so happy I finally got to see a wild manatee. Maybe next trip I’ll take the tour that lets you swim with the manatees.
Then I might be able to get one of those iconic pictures like you see in all the ads and on the Nat Geo channel.