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A Last Look at Florida

Thursday, 11 March 2004
written by Teresa

The clear shallow waters flow from the spring down the run and into the St Johns River. The temperature at source is seventy-two degrees and the Manatees are attracted to the warmer waters taking shelter and comfort from the colder river for a few months each year. Here at Blue Spring State Park they are constant visitors from November to March and even though the tourists outnumber them itís still worth the experience. The crystal waters of the spring run offer a wonderful view of these huge docile herbivores. Their characteristic flat disc tails acts as a slow majestic paddle, each stroke sending them gliding through the water. At rest, they lie on the sandy bottom gently rising now and again to take a noisy breath of air through their hippopotamus like snouts before settling back down for further snoozes. 2 Manatees Their social nature is much in evidence as they play follow my leader, holding onto the manatee in front, as many as three piled up in this bizarre formation moving through the water before collapsing in a writhing mass, cavorting with each other. Now, we have read about mating herds but those appear to be larger gatherings and besides which this is a family website.

Speeding boats pose a significant threat to the slow moving Manatees, frequently colliding with them. Many get killed, the lucky ones escape with tell tale marks. These distinct scars are visible on nearly all the animals in the spring run and watching their slow stately progress it is easy to see why their usual speed of three to five miles an hour is of little help in this battle for survival with humankind.

There is something about these giants that touches me. In spite of their size they seem gentle and un-intimidating, the smooth curves of their bodies, their magical tails and comical snouts adding up to a most unlikely looking creature.

The warm waters are also home to some extremely large Gar as well as Catfish that appear to have a symbiotic relationship with the Manatees, performing a cleaning service by nibbling algae off their backs. Blue Tilapia excavate cone like depressions or nests in the sandy bottom of the run where they lay, hatch and protect their young and the little Florida turtles bask on low lying braches quickly slipping back into the water at the first sign of danger.

One afternoon we rent a canoe and prepare to venture out onto the river but have to maneuver around a manatee that has decided to snooze on the bed of the little launching bay. At the last minute he saunters off, aquatic style, as Sterling says. Mid-week there are few boats on the water and after the hubbub of the busy park; the surrounding quiet is a delight. The sound of the paddles slicing the water and the raucous objections of a disturbed heron are as loud as it gets. It is a wonderful way to experience the place, the alligators basking, the turtles sunning, the birds busy in the reeds and us just part of it, gliding by peacefully. Fortunately, Sterling is at the Ďhelmí that strangely enough turns out to be at the back of the canoe and so we do not spend hours going round and round in circles, although my lack of balance does assert itself and he finds himself having to compensate for the perpetual wobble; itís not really the place to go for a dip.

Low Tide Now we are parked on the edge of the salt marsh in the lee of Little Talbot Island. The apparent flat uniformity of the grassy acres slowly come alive as the tide brings in a new lease of life. The sunlight glints and sparkles on the rising water level as it fills the channels and seeps out across the grassland, covering the oyster beds in the process. The Live Oaks and Junipers framing the camper are draped with Spanish moss; air plants nestled amongst the foliage. Early morning brings a surprising symphony of birdsong, the woodpeckers drumming out the percussion, the warblers carrying the main melody.

On the ocean side of the island the Atlantic laps up the empty expanse of beach, the dunes behind devoid of development here in the state park. Just inland, separated from the beach by older grass-covered dunes is a dense coastal hammock and a short trail winds through these various habitats, returning along the waters edge. It is our last stop in Florida before continuing north into Georgia and back to the realities of early spring and long trousers.

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