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Field Notes from Blue Spring State Park

By Journey North's Julie Brophy
Julie and Ranger Wayne

I traveled to Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, FL to get my first-ever look at the endangered manatee, and my first-ever look at "Mr. Manatee" himself, Ranger Wayne Hartley. Ranger Wayne has been observing and studying the manatees of Blue Spring for over 21 years, and he invited me to join him in the canoe for the morning "Roll Call" of the manatees that migrate to Blue Spring in the winter.

My day began early in the morning, before the usual crowds of people flock to see manatees from viewing platforms on the banks of the Blue Spring "Run". The Run is like a wide stream that "runs" from inside the Park down to the St. Johns River, a distance of about 1/3 mile. The morning air temperature was around 41 degrees F ( 5 degrees C), just one degree warmer than when I left unseasonably warm Minnesota(44.96,-93.54)! But of course Florida in winter is much different than Minnesota in winter. Instead of snow and pale colors, Blue Spring was green and lush with spanish moss hanging from every tree.

When I first saw Ranger Wayne, he arrived in his State Park truck with life jackets, a canoe paddle, and his journal with "scar sheets" folded in between the pages (more on the scar sheets later). I had no idea what to expect, and in fact began to wonder when I heard someone say they thought they had seen an alligator.) Moments later, we were in the canoe marked "Manatee Research", floating on the water where the Run meets the River. With a few gentle paddle strokes, we set out "up" the Run. First we crossed a floating barrier rope with a sign that warns "Manatee Refuge No Canoes or Boat Beyond This Point". The air was cold, and Ranger Wayne wore a scarf and earmuffs. Steam was rising up from the Run. I put my fingers in the water, and it was warm like bath water. In the Run the water is at a constant 72 degrees (22.2 degrees C)!

Take a closer look-see how many manatees you can see!

The water was dark at the start near the River, but as we glided up the run it became very clear, so clear that I could see the sandy bottom about 8 ft down, and clearly see several fish species all around us. Then, before I knew it, a huge gray body swam toward the canoe--I saw my first manatee! And then came another, and another and another. Some seemed as curious about us as I was about them. It didn't take long before I heard Ranger Wayne's warm, low chuckle, as he began talking to each manatee that came in sight as though they were members of his family or old friends: "Hey, you, where's your momma?", "Hello, Georgia, where's Peach?", "You're late! Where have you been?" "Hey, get away from the canoe" (he told me a journalist who rode along last year ended up in the water, when a manatee overturned the canoe). With his keen eye, he greeted them, then picked up his journal and began writing his observations. When we finished the roll call about 90 minutes later that morning, the count was 50+manatees, 0 Alligators and 1 very happy passenger! (I could have stayed all day!)

How does Ranger Waybe know who's who? How can he tell them apart? Has he ever "met" an alligator? I experienced so much at Blue Spring, and there's much more to explore--stay tuned.

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