Last November, I attended the annual conference of the American Water Resources Association (AWRA) in Orlando, Florida. You may recall that I retired from AWRA which is headquartered in Middleburg a year earlier after 16 years as Technical Director. It was a great reunion with many friends.
One afternoon during the conference I skipped out of the technical sessions to visit an attraction in the Orlando area. What did I visit, Disneyland? Universal Studios? Any of the many other attractions in the area? No, none of them. Instead, I drove about an hour north of Orlando to visit Blue Spring, State Park.
Springs occur at locations where groundwater discharges to the surface. Many of the nearly 1,100 identified springs in Florida discharge water under artesian pressure from the underlying Floridian Aquifer, and in some cases, the discharge is significantly large. That is the case of Blue Spring, a first magnitude spring. A first magnitude spring discharges more than 100 cubic feet per second, which is the equivalent to the average discharge of a small river. The water from Blue Spring emerges from the aquifer at a constant 73 degrees Fahrenheit and flows to the nearby St. Johns River.
However, the attraction of Blue Spring State Park for me was more than just the spring itself. I talked to a couple of friends at the conference who had visited the park a few days earlier because, in November, manatees begin to move upstream in the St. Johns River to winter in the warm water of the spring. They were fortunate to have seen two manatees. They cautioned that morning was the best time to see manatees, because, by afternoon, they were often back in the river.
Florida manatees are herbivorous mammals living on submerged vegetation. Fully grown, they can weigh more than 800 pounds. They are gentle giants who have been listed as an endangered species for many years. Contact with humans is the principal reason. For example, they can be killed or maimed by contact with boat propellers. In January 2016, there were an estimated 6000 manatees in Florida water, a significant gain in numbers over 20 years.
I decided to take a chance and go to the park. Even if I didn’t see a manatee, the hydrologist in me intrigued by the thought of seeing such a huge spring. The park was beautiful, cypress trees with hanging Spanish moss over the sparkling clear water of the very impressive spring. There were observation platforms built over the water flowing from the spring.
I didn’t see any alligators or I didn’t see any of the monkeys that are supposed to live in the park. But within five minutes of walking onto an observation platform, I saw my first manatee gliding slowly along about six inches below the water surface. Some would say it was not beautiful but to me it was, and its movement through the water was smooth, graceful and, to me, even peaceful. Very shortly I saw another. In total, I saw eleven manatees including a mother with two offspring and another mother with one (see photo}.
Seeing the manatees was a great experience. It reminded me that we humans share the earth with some amazing creatures; we need to remember that our earth is their earth too.
Manatee and offspring, Blue Spring State Park, Florida, November 17, 2016