MANATEE SPRINGS STATE PARK, FL — When naturalist William Bartram visited Manatee Springs in the late 1700s, he said the place was astonishing: “This charming nymphaeum is the product of primitive nature, not to be imitated, much less equaled, by the united effort of human power and ingenuity!”
Two centuries later, much of that beauty remains. “Two hundred years is not very long for nature” said Bill Maphis, the park manager in the mid 1990s. “The same basic features are here, with the exception of the concrete to provide the visitor access to the water.”
The West Indian Manatees, after which the park was named, are frequent visitors, with more than a hundred manatee sightings per year.
“Manatee Springs is the first feeding station on the Suwannee River. The manatees come 23 miles inland from the gulf, and this is the first warm spring with a food supply,” Maphis said. Tannic acid, which darkens the Suwannee for much of the year, stunts the growth of the aquatic plants on which the manatee feed, he says. The result is that by the time the manatees reach the spring, they need the food and the rest.
When manatees enter the swimming area, people are asked to leave the water. “The animal is not dangerous to people, but if people were to stay in the area, the animal would learn bad habits,” Maphis said. A similar policy is in place at Blue Spring State Park. (But read here for information on manatee swimming tours.)
Early inhabitants of the region used to eat manatees. “What do manatees taste like?” It’s not merely a joke: William Bartram wrote “The flesh of this creature is counted wholesome and pleasant food; the Indians call them by a name which signifies the big beaver.”
The earliest known residents of Manatee Springs were the Timucuan Indians. “The whole picnic area was a Timucuan Indian village site,” Maphis said. They chose the site because “it provided access to Suwannee river for transportation. It also provided plenty of fresh water that was clean. In addition to that it provided a food supply.”
“The spring has been used by everybody when they came along, it doesn’t matter who,” Maphis said. “It was just one of those places that attracted people.”
Manatee is one of Florida’s first-magnitude springs, and it produces 117 million gallons of water a day at a constant 72 degrees. (Other first magnitude springs include Alexander Springs, Silver Glen Springs, Wakulla Springs and Blue Spring.) “The ebullition is astonishing, and continual,” Bartram wrote.
The spring and its underwater caverns have become a popular scuba diving location. “The cave is larger than most of the others in the area,” Maphis said. “Two or three divers can swim side by side.” Proper certification is required for both open diving and cave diving, and divers have been killed in caves. (To explore one of Florida’s best dry caves, try Florida Caverns State Park.)
In addition to scuba diving, the state park offers swimming, canoeing, camping and hiking. A raised boardwalk follows the swamp at the edge of the spring run to the Suwannee River. Below, the crystal-clear swamp teams with plants and animals.
Bartram loved watching the fish: “It is amazing and almost incredible, what troops and bands of fish and other watery inhabitants are now in sight, all peaceable; and in what variety of gay colours and forms, continually ascending and descending, roving and figuring amongst one another, yet every tribe associating separately.”
Birds also flock to the Manatee Springs. Summer visitors might spot a Limpkin searching for the eggs of apple snails, or perhaps a Swallow-tailed or Mississippi Kite. Bartram said the area provided so many “amusing subjects of inquiry” that he decided to stay for the entire day. Today’s visitors will likely find the same thing.
Manatee Springs State Park Info:
The park is located just north of Chiefland on US 19. It is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. From Ocala, take Highway 27 north to Alt 27 north. It’s about an hour and a half drive. Park activities include snorkeling and scuba diving (including cave diving), and an 8.5-mile network of hiking trails. 100 campsites are available. Admission is $6.00 per vehicle for up to 8 people or $4.00 for single occupant vehicles. For information, call (352) 493-6072.