Every time we have come to Florida in the winter, we have heard about manatees. These huge, gentle creatures also called sea cows, come to inland waters when their usual haunts along the coast get too cold. Even though they can be twelve feet long and weigh two tons, they are hard to see. They move slowly grazing on underwater vegetation and only come to the surface to breathe, staying beneath the water for as long as twenty minutes. Because they move slowly and are hard to spot underneath the sagging tree limbs hung with Spanish Moss, they are especially vulnerable to boat propellors. While they have a face only a mother could love, it is said that sailors who had been at sea for much, much too long mistook them for mermaids.
But when we have tried to see manatees, it has generally been a frustrating experience, gray blobs in murky water. We heard that Blue Spring State Park was an especially good viewing place and have to agree. Blue Spring discharges 104 million gallons of 72º water annually, which flows into the St. Johns River. During the summer the park is packed with swimmers looking for relief from the oppressive Florida heat, but this time of year, the manatees swim in to savor this relatively warm water. The fast moving water is so clear, the manatee are easy to see, even when they are in deeper spots. A boardwalk along the river had overlooks for the people, but didn't allow us to interfere with manatee life at all. In 1970 there were only fourteen of them here, but by 2005 the population had grown to nearly 200. Even here many members of this healthy group had large, white scars from their encounters with boats. A gator shared the sunshine with the floating gray blobs and we could see hundreds of fish relaxing beneath the surface. It felt a bit like a strange Garden of Eden, populated with an odd assortment of residents.
After taking too many gray blob photos, we drove to the beach for a drive on the beach. The lanes and parking areas were well marked in the sand, but the wind off the cool water kept all but two kite surfers out of the waves. Next time we'll have to bring a kite, too.