By Erika Webb
The relative warmth of 72-degree water at Blue Spring State Park may have tempted locals and their out-of-town guests over the long, chilly Thanksgiving weekend, but park officials said no to swimming in the spring run.
Due to a significant dip in temperatures the park's winter residents, manatees, sought earlier-than-usual refuge from the colder water of the St. Johns River, bringing with them record-breaking numbers of calves.
The spring run, which is usually closed to people starting mid-November, was closed in late October as a result of the early onslaught.
Wayne Hartley, manatee specialist for Save the Manatee Club, has been busy counting in recent weeks.
"I'm admitting to 39 (calves) but there may be as many as 45 in there right now," he said. "The record number was 27 so we've smashed that to pieces."
Mr. Hartley said so far this year he has identified 370 individual manatees at Blue Spring.
Patrick Rose is considered to be one of the world's leading experts on the Florida Manatee. He is the executive director and aquatic biologist for the club. On Nov. 30 Mr. Rose idled down the run in a canoe shooting live, underwater footage of the sea cows for the club's website and for research purposes.
A calf rolled playfully in the water near the bank while being exfoliated by fish.
Mr. Rose said the number of calves is good news for the cause.
"The St. Johns regional population is growing at a good rate," Mr. Rose said. "The protections put in place over the past 25 to 30 years are being effective."
The Florida manatee, found in and around the state's waterways, is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, found from the southern United States to the northeast coast of Brazil and around neighboring islands.
Manatees are classified as an endangered species and are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.
The entire state is designated as a manatee sanctuary under the Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978.
Manatees have no natural enemies and can live up to around 60 years. Natural-cause mortality typically is the result of cold stress, gastrointestinal disease, pneumonia and other diseases. But most manatee deaths are directly related to human contact or encroachment, according to the Save the Manatee Club.
Over time, collisions with boat propellers and hulls, entanglement in monofilament fishing line and nets, drowning or crushing by flood gates or in canal locks, fatal injuries from fishing hooks and other human activities, such as poaching and littering, threatened the survival of the Florida manatee population.
Research, public awareness programs, public acquisition of critical habitat and the establishment of sanctuaries are among the most important manatee conservation measures, according to the SMC website.
Mr. Rose was the first federal manatee recovery activities coordinator and Florida's first manatee and marine mammal coordinator. He helped shape policy and provided direction for statewide recovery efforts for endangered and protected marine species.
"Back in the '60s they were driven out by people. Now they're coming in from other places, like Silver Glen (Springs), where it's still crazy," he said. "But over time the population grew at a healthy rate."
Since 1989, 13 Florida counties, including Volusia, have worked with the state to develop site-specific boat speed zones to reduce the likelihood of watercraft collisions.
And throughout Florida human interaction with the slow-moving, gentle creatures is prohibited.
Interactions include: touching, riding, poking, chasing, surrounding, feeding or giving water to manatees or any type of interaction that interferes with a mother and her calf.
In late November a Pinellas County woman was arrested and charged with violating the Florida Sanctuary Act, a second-degree misdemeanor, after she was photographed two months earlier touching and riding a manatee in St. Petersburg's Fort Desoto Park.
"Passive observation is really the way you should see the manatees here," Mr. Rose said. "If people are passive the manatees will come up to them, and that's okay."
People from around the world can view wild manatees in their natural habitat on SMC's live webcams set up at Blue Spring.
Last winter the SMC strategically placed underwater and above-water cameras in the park's spring run to provide mass live streaming of manatees and other wildlife at www.manatv.org.
The webcams aid manatee research, and help with preliminary health assessments of individual manatees, which may be injured or sick, in addition to identifying orphaned calves potentially in need of rescue, according to the club's website.
Mr. Rose said there is a video on the SMC website of a manatee playfully flipper-slapping an alligator.
He said he watched with some trepidation as the scene unfolded before the camera, but he laughs about it now.
"Gators won't hurt the manatees," he said. "Manatees are too big, too slow and they don't taste good."
Mr. Rose said the curious giants even get away with nudging the gators with their noses.
To ensure the manatees' safety and well-being, the spring and spring run is closed to all water related activities including swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving and boating from Nov. 15 through March 15.
The best time to view manatees is in early morning on a cold winter day.
Another growing population is the one attending Orange City's biggest event of the year.
The 28th annual Orange City Blue Spring Manatee Festival will be Jan. 26-27, and preparations are well underway.
The festival is a fundraiser for the Orange City community. Proceeds benefit "Friends of Blue Spring State Park", fund educational scholarships, and help other greater Orange City organizations, including the Orange City DARE Program. Other recipients include Adopt-A-Manatee, Florida Hospital Cancer Center, Scouts and Police Explorers.
Manatee Festival food chair Suzy Edwards has volunteered with the organization for the past 12 years.
"2012 was our biggest year ever, the largest attendance," she said. "We gave out about $40,000 this past year."
Ms. Edwards said the 2013 festival will include live music performed by former Real Radio personalities Bubba Wilson and Jeff Howell, animal exhibitions and environmental education courtesy of the Central Florida Zoo, FWC educational displays, animal adoptions through the SPCA, world-famous Frisbee dogs, the Disc-Connected K-9s and crafters as well as food, food and more food.
She said the organization is still seeking more crafters for the upcoming festival and sponsors are always needed.