Everyone has heard about winter manatee viewing in Florida springs, but most of the time you hear about Silver Springs or Blue Springs. We are sure those places are amazing, but they are also EXTREMELY difficult to get into, especially for folks like us who don’t plan months in advance. Knowing that those places probably wouldn’t be possible for us but that we would really like to experience at least one Florida spring, we started the search for somewhere lesser known with availability. We settled on Manatee Springs. Believing that the others are more popular for a reason, we went into it with very little in the way of expectations.
First, let’s talk about the campground. We stayed in loop 1 of the Magnolia Campground. It is perfectly adequate. While the main road through the park is paved, the campground roads are packed sand, and the sites are sandy as well. Most of the sites we saw were rather large and would easily fit our rig, but there were a few smaller ones, so you want to make sure to check the site sizes before booking. There are bathrooms in the middle of the loop, but we didn’t use those facilities, so we can’t speak to their quality or cleanliness. Our only complaint about the camp site we were in is that the sewer connection is tall and very uphill from the camping pad. That makes it difficult to thoroughly dump the tank and significantly increases the chances of a poopsie. We were super careful, though, so no poopsie for us!
Now let’s get to the fun stuff! The area around the spring is relatively small and is easily walkable from the campground. We started by going to the main spring area which is a beautiful green color! Because the water is so clear, it doesn’t look very deep from the top, but we were told that it is actually about 30 feet deep here! It is a first-magnitude spring, meaning the flow is at least 100 million gallons of water per day. There were a couple of people scuba diving in the spring while we were there and they were kind enough to take our GoPro down with them and get some footage of what it looks like from below! That will make our video from this area a little more interesting! The water itself was around 72° with lots of tiny fish swimming around. With the air temperature being in the 60s it felt fairly warm to the touch – so much so that Heather was tempted to go for a swim. She changed her mind pretty quickly, though, when the divers said they were even cold in their dry suits. Maybe it’s not quite warm enough for a swim…
The divers we talked to had just come from Catfish Hotel which is a sinkhole just across the lawn from the main Manatee spring. They said that diving in there is a little more interesting than in the main spring because there are more fish and more things to see. They were also telling us that there is an underground cave system that connects Catfish Hotel and the main spring that people have traveled through while diving, but it is very dangerous. There have been several fatalities and it sounds like the park service might have put a stop to travel through the cave. The one diver said you have to be very careful when diving there as the current tries to pull you into the cave and into a very dangerous situation. We walked over to take a look at Catfish Hotel ourselves. While it may be more interesting from under the water, you can’t see much from the top. It is almost entirely covered in duckweed.
There is a boardwalk that runs 800’ from the main spring area, down the run that the spring makes into the Suwannee River. It flows through a beautiful cypress forest and is a peaceful, quiet walk where you can see various birds, fish, and sometimes alligators and manatees. There were no alligators or manatees along the way while we were there, but we loved the peacefulness of the area and marveling at the massive cypress trees.
By this point, we were pretty convinced we weren’t going to see any manatees. Maybe we were too early in the season? Maybe they just weren’t there that day? Maybe they were hiding out in an area where they weren’t easily visible? And then we got to the end of the boardwalk, where the spring empties into the river. There is a nice covered platform at the end and there were a lot of people there, looking off in one particular direction. Sure enough, MANATEES! They were off in the distance a bit, so they were a little hard to see, but we settled in to watch and wait. They would occasionally raise their heads to breathe, but the real excitement was when one swam away and right past the platform. We thought that was the best we would get until one swam in, directly under where we were standing on the platform, emerging right in front of us to give us the perfect bird’s-eye view of it swimming through! It was very exciting! During our time watching and waiting, though, we also noticed so much life in the area that we didn’t see on first glance. In addition to the manatees, there were many large fish, lots of turtles, a HUGE committee of vultures that were always in the trees around, an alligator, cormorants, egrets, and a river otter. It was an amazing place to be and we spent several hours just observing.
Don’t be scared off from the lesser known springs! This was an amazing stop for us and such a worthy place to spend a day! We highly recommend Manatee Springs!
Until next time…