Animals, of course, notice this difference too. Florida can support many creatures that would be unfortunate victims of the cold elsewhere in the United States, but few are as unique and intriguing as the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus). This manatee is only one of three species of manatees known and is also kin to another beast, the dugong, found in Africa and Asia. Manatees are fully aquatic mammals and linked to dolphins but also elephants in their morphology and characteristics: so foreign and portly yet lovable in appearance, they seem nearly like a child’s cartoon drawing brought to life.

Though enormous, manatees are gentle and harmless creatures that eat aquatic vegetation and mean no harm to humans. Unfortunately, manatees on the other hand have been harmed and have seen their numbers greatly reduced by human civilization, although mostly unintentionally. Manatees unfortunately are curious creatures, attracted by shiny lights and thus too often stray too close to motorcraft, getting hit in the head by passing boats or badly cut by their propellers. Laws enacted to help preserve the endangered animals and better boater education have helped greatly, but the manatee still faces an uncertain future.

Several springs have become state parks, in part to retain their status as refuges in the winter for the manatee. Blue Springs State Park south of DeLand and the most appropriately-named Manatee Springs west of Chiefland are among the most popular wintering destinations for the manatees. These springs have swimming areas normally open to park visitors, but these are closed off when the manatees come to call, mostly for the protection of the manatees as the manatees pose no real threat to human swimmers. The manatees will come into the springs—sometimes in such large numbers they’re parked virtually back to back, cheek to jowl—but will leave to wander the spring-runs and rivers during sunny, warmer days and come back to the springs at nightfall. Standing on a boardwalk overlook at Manatee Springs, you can watch them around sunset gracefully floating down the spring-run despite their immense size and girth, nearly like small vessels.Another threat to the manatee is the fact that they chill easily in cold waters, so when the mercury dips in Florida, they retreat from their normal haunts in brackish waters and rivers and journey to the springs which feed many of Florida’s rivers. The reason for this is that these springs are in turn fed by the great Florida Aquifer and their temperature remains between 68 and 72°F year-round. This can be significantly warmer than the river waters, and manatees may flock in droves—by tens and even hundreds in cases—to these warmer springs. The warm effluent of nuclear power plants also attracts them: the water used to cool the plants picks up transferred warmth but is neither radioactive nor toxic, so the manatees congregate in the canals surrounding these plants. But the number of such power plants in Florida is down to only two after one at Crystal River closed.  So the springs remain the primary source of warmer waters for the benevolent beasts.

A manatee swimming up the spring-run to Manatee Springs (photo by Mike Walker)

Come spring and certainly summer, the manatees have departed Manatee Springs, but plenty of other wildlife are present. Various fishes, turtles, snakes, birds, and mammals ranging from deer to bobcats, possums, raccoons, armadillos, and more. You are nearly ensured of seeing something on each visit, whether the harmless brown water snake curled up near the edge of the water or a red-tailed hawk or a gopher tortoise. White-tail deer, often does with young fawns, are a common sight if you visit during the winter, grazing as placidly as cattle by the side of trails. The armadillo—a non-native creature to Florida that apparently moseyed its way here from Texas—has made itself quite at home. Though pests when in someone’s yard—digging it up in search for insects and grubs to eat—they’re fascinating to watch if encountered in the wild. Like the manatee, they’re a creature that seems nearly from another world or the realm of fantasy with their intricate coat of armored shell.

When the manatees are not in winter residence, the springs are a treat to swim and free-dive in Cave-certified SCUBA divers may also dive the intricate caverns of Manatee Springs’ cave as well. A concessionaire, Anderson’s Outdoor Adventures, also rents canoes and kayaks and provides guided pontoon boat tours of the nearby Suwannee River, one of Florida’s most important historic waterways.

The area around Manatee Springs is rich in history. Chiefland sits at a crucial axis of the Suwannee River and important highways and also has some of the best flatland farming lands in the state. Driving down from Trenton or Fanning Springs, you’ll see both beef and dairy cattle grazing in their meadows or tractors preparing fields for growing crops. Fanning Springs, to the north, was the site of Fort Fanning, a key fortification established in 1838 to guard against attacks on settlers by Native Americans. The railroad later came to the area, and the old rail bed from Trenton to Cross City is now the Nature Coast State Trail, which can be hiked or biked through some of the region’s most scenic lands, including crossing the Suwannee River via an old rail trestle bridge near Old Town. Another amazing spring is located at Fanning Springs State Park, which is right on the Suwannee River. Cross City, to the west, was once one of the centers of the naval stores, or turpentine production, industry in Florida and still remains integral to the state’s timber production economy.

Florida has long been known for its exotic beauty and fascinating animals found in few other locations. The manatee, a gentle giant, is one of the most-intriguing of these creatures, and unlike hoping for a glimpse of the rare Florida panther through the veil of palmettos, you can find the manatee on cool days in our relatively warm springs, a refuge their ancestors knew long before our own discovered their fresh following waters.

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