So many people visit Orlando and go straight to the theme parks. There is something else you might want to see when you come to Florida. It is fascinating and unique and you can see it by taking just a 30 minute drive north of Orlando. If you make the effort you'll be able to enjoy a visit with the unusual and rare mammal called the manatee.
Florida is just one of three places in the world where you can see this strange-looking gentle creature. It is the only marine mammal that is an herbivore (it grazes on green things), and though it is sometimes called a sea cow, its closest relative is the elephant. Like the elephant it is the largest creature in its habitat: the average adult manatee is 10 feet long (2.5 to 4.5 meters) and weighs about 1,000 lbs (200 to 600 kg). This is a very large creature to come across in a river.
The Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian Manatee or Trichechus manatus. It is one of three species of related sea-going mammals of the order Sirenia. That name harks back to stories told by early sailors who mistook the manatee for the "sirens" of Greek legend--mermaids who lured ships onto the rocks. As it turns out, manatees are much too friendly to do any such evil luring, and the animals don't look anything like beautiful mermaids. Clearly, sailors who were away from women for years at a time developed vivid imaginations.
The manatee is so large it has no natural enemies and its brain isn't programmed to fear. Consequently, these animals are curious and very friendsly toward their land-based cousins, the primates. You aren't allowed to swim with them and bother them, as they are protected by federal and state law, but people who accidentally come upon them in Florida rivers and streams report they seem to love swimming near humans and will roll over on their backs like dogs and practically purr if you scratch their tummies.
Unfortunately, some humans have not been friendly in return. A cousin of the manatee, the Stellar Sea Cow was hunted to extinction in the 18th century. The Florida manatee faces most of its challenges from humans in the environment: watercraft propellers and impact injuries are the leading causes of manatee deaths. Pollution also kills them. The good ecological news is that after a low of a few hundred in the 1970s, their number in Florida has now risen to about 3000.
The manatee disperses throughout the South in the hot summer days. But as winter approaches and the water in rivers and streams cools down, they head for the warm springs in Florida's interior.
Blue Spring State Park is one of these and one of the easiest to get to from Orlando. It is still early in the cool season, but my family and I went to Blue Spring recently and there were 17 manatee visiting the spring that day, all easy to spot and all relaxing in the 72 F degree water. The water is so clear there you can see right through it, and the manatees float under water sleeping during much of the day. After five or ten minutes they slip to the surface to breathe, exhale and inhale without awakening, and go back down for some more rest.
If you wait 'til December and January, more than a hundred manatees will be in Blue Spring, and the manatee watching is the best it is all year. There are picnic tables for your family, a place for swimming, and there are canoes and kayaks to rent (except at the height of the manatee season when canoeing might interfere with the manatee habitat). The park has 15 minute presentations throughout the day and an informative little movie you can watch to learn more.
To reach Blue Spring head east from Orlando on Interstate 4, exit at the Orange City/Blue Spring State Park exit and follow the signs.
Here is the park's Web Site. Rangers count the manatees each day and will post the count on the site: http://www.floridastateparks.org/bluespring/