Manatees gather at Blue Spring State Park in the winter.
Manatees gather at Blue Spring State Park. (Photo © David R. Schrichte)

Blue Spring State Park:
Vital Habitat For Endangered Manatees

As viewers enjoy the webcams at Blue Spring State Park, it is important to keep in mind exactly what we are seeing. We are not only enjoying the manatees but also the serene habitat surrounding these graceful creatures. A habitat like the one at Blue Spring is vital to the survival of manatees. During the winter months, manatees require water temperatures greater than 68 F to survive and prevent the development of a potentially fatal syndrome called cold stress, with symptoms similar to frostbite and hypothermia. Springs provide a constant water temperature of approximately 72 F, making them a preferred winter habitat for manatees when surrounding waterways cool into the mid 60s or below. Further, humans are kept out of the water when manatees are present during the winter months at Blue Spring, giving manatees a peaceful, quiet area to rest and stay warm. Over the years, the number of manatees utilizing Blue Spring in the winter months has greatly increased. When manatee counts first began at Blue Spring in the 1980-1981 winter season, there were only 35 manatees. However, during the last winter season, 483 individual manatees were seen at Blue Spring.

Manatee refuge sign at Blue Spring State Park.
Manatee mother and calf.
(Photos © David R. Schrichte)

Due to the large number of manatees that use Blue Spring, the clear waters, and the easy visibility, the site has become a perfect location for researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey Sirenia Project to carry out photo identification of the manatees. Manatees are photographed and identified by their scar patterns to determine which manatees are returning to Blue Spring each year and construct manatee family trees that show the relatedness of many of the manatees that winter at Blue Spring. In fact, the visual ID and genealogy work performed by former Park Ranger and Park Service Specialist Wayne Hartley is potentially the longest running manatee genealogy record in the state of Florida. In addition to photo ID, Blue Spring has been instrumental in manatee rescue and rehabilitation. The high public visibility of the manatees in the spring allows for sick or injured manatees to be spotted and rescued more easily, which has saved manatees' lives over the years. The spring has also become a popular site to release rehabilitated manatees because the habitat is so important.

Since manatees do rely on these springs for survival, the manatees have become an important catalyst for the protection of the springs and groundwater. Unfortunately, springs such as Blue Spring are at risk as development and subsequent water withdrawals to support such development increases. As more water is drawn from the spring for human use, the area accessible to manatees at these warm water sites shrinks. For this reason, water management districts around the state of Florida are setting limits on groundwater withdrawals that affect springs. This is called the Minimum Flow and Levels (MFL) program. This is a controversial issue as different stakeholders can disagree about how much water is desired for human use, and how much is needed to protect the springs environment and the many species who call it home. It is a reminder to everyone that water conservation is a vital step towards protecting manatees and the environment. Without the springs, these manatees would not be able to gather for warmth during the winter months, and we would not be able to enjoy watching them on the webcams.


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