manatees swimming in green spring water under foliage

Sea Cow Snuggle Season

St. Johns River Cruises @ Blue Spring State Park

Things to Do in Central Florida

Florida or Bust

It’s officially manatee snuggle season, and the big squishies are out in full force throughout Central Florida’s springs huddling in the waters to keep warm! 

manatee swimming in green spring water under foliage

No other spring has quite the reputation for manatee spotting like Blue Spring State Park in Orange City. With nearly 500 snuggly sea cows (at time of printing) nestled into the park’s picturesque waters, Florida’s winter months are the ideal time to visit the park. 

With numerous overlooks and boardwalks at the springhead and its path to St. Johns River, there are plenty of viewing spots to watch the manatees swim, cuddle and lazily roll about in the water. 

When is the Best Time to See Manatees?

Save the Manatee Club and their team of volunteers arrive early each day to count and identify the manatees in the spring (no small task!) and report on their wellbeing. You can check the squish-count online before heading to the park on Facebook (@BlueSpringStatePark or @SaveTheManateeClub) but a good indicator of manatee population is to simply check the weather. 

manatee swimming in green spring water under foliage

Although manatees appear to be giant beanbags stuffed with pudge and love, they actually only have about an inch of fat and very slow metabolisms. Like many Floridians, they do not handle the cold well and rely on the spring’s constant 72-degree warmth anytime the surrounding waters drop below 68 degrees. 

St. Johns River Cruises

Although the spring is the hot place to be this season, a manatee’s still gotta eat to keep up its adorable figure and the spring has little to offer by way of sea cow snacks. The manatees need to venture into the surrounding areas of St. Johns River to hunt down tasty vegetation and St. Johns River Cruises offers two-hour tours to follow along on the manatee lunch breaks. 

Along the way, your captain will point out the native wildlife, including countless bird species, gators and, of course, manatees. There will also be an exceptional number of turtles, and after the third sighting or so, will be promptly ignored. Anyone relentlessly pointing out said turtles “might” be thrown overboard. I can attest to this because my husband, Scott, took it upon himself to be the tour’s resident (obnoxious) turtle spotter. 

smiling man in sunglasses holding baby on tour boat

All kidding aside, this was a really nice time to relax and spend together as a family with our 11-month-old daughter, Avery, who is growing into quite the adventurer and nature lover herself. Two hours can be a long time for anyone, however, so I highly recommend planning ahead and bringing whatever you may need. We kept Avery supplied with plenty of snacks and small toys to keep her well entertained for all the times she couldn’t spot the tiny birds in the trees everyone else was looking at. Chips and drinks are sold on-board for a nominal fee if you’re constantly in need of a snack like myself. 

bird riding on top of manatee as it eats foliage

We learned how to spot a manatee “footprint,” or their small ripples on the water’s surface as they float just below, and saw plenty of sunbathing gators, including a massive one that carefully eyed us as we went by. 

River Cruise Reservations

The tours fill up quickly so I highly recommend checking the weather for an ideal day and calling ahead to make a reservation. The more manatees there are in the spring, the more people there are in the park, so I cannot stress this enough…make sure you give yourself plenty of extra time before your tour. 

group of small alligators on riverbank

The first time we had a reservation, we left with just enough time to get to the park, not accounting for the line of manatee-spotters out the park and down the road in front of us. The tours always leave right on schedule and ours went without us. Luckily, the cruise will honor your reservation and reschedule you. If there are enough people waiting that couldn’t make it on the boat, they will schedule another tour for the day and put you on that one if possible. 

large alligator lying in grass at riverbank

We were able to come back the following week and gave ourselves two extra hours to get there, relax, stroll around the park and take in the sights before the tour. Afterwards, we toured the historic Thursby House and took in the history of the area and its settlers. 

smiling woman holding baby in front of historic home

Manatee sighting season typically runs through March, so make sure you don’t miss your chance to visit their winter retreat at Blue Spring! 

St. Johns River Cruises @ Blue Spring State Park 

2100 W. French Ave., Orange City 32763 

(386) 917-0724 // 

Adults: $25; Seniors: $23; Kids (3 – 12 yrs): $18; Under 3 yrs: Free 

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