(Above) Abby Holcombe explores one of Florida’s freshwater springs in search of manatee.
The freshwater springs of northern and central Florida are a definite must see for anyone visiting the Sunshine State. Millions of gallons of crystal clear spring water percolate through the limestone bedrock in central and northern Florida creating pockets of pristine water surrounded by Spanish moss clad cyprus trees, lanky palm trees and other lush vegetation that work together to create an idyllic sanctuary for a wide variety of birds and beast. Pitt Springs, just north of Panama City, was our first stop.
As we navigated our Winnebago View down the serpentine road leading to the spring, we had no idea what to expect other than a foray into the unknown, which to be completely honest, started off pretty rocky. The narrow road dead-ended at small parking lot, which resulted in a few terse words and some creative problem solving on how turn around our 24′ View with a 16′ trailer in tow in a lot that was only 40 feet wide. We ended up intentionally jack-knifing the trailer and dropping it, which allowed us to easily turn the nimble View in the tight space and then reattach the trailer once we were pointed in the right direction.
After shaking off the frustration of the dicey parking situation, we set out to explore the springs. We strolled down an elevated, wooden path and set out into the lush vegetation. We discovered cabbage palms, magnolia and holly trees and a host of other flora unknown to us. After just a short walk we came to a tube launch area that we suspect in the summer is overrun with inner-tub clad tourists trying to escape the heat, but in the 60 degree January weather, we had the entire park to ourselves. We decided trade in the elevated view of the springs for a more intimate experience and retraced our steps to don paddling gear and return with kayaks. The tube launch was at the confluence of Pitt Springs and Econfina Creek. The creek itself was cold and tannic with water as thick and dark as day old coffee, but once we crossed the threshold of the spring, the water was a balmy 70 degrees and so clear that it felt as if we were flying, suspended over the sandy river bottom.
Somehow, in reading about Florida, Abby (our 10 year old daughter) discovered that manatee spend the winter in the relatively warm springs, and insisted in bringing along a dive mask in the unlikely event that we happened across one of the gentle giants. Once we crossed into the crystal clear spring water, she donned the mask and her world inverted as she explored the spring suspended upside down under her kayak, only to right herself with an Eskimo roll periodically to breath. The spring proved an enchanting playground with adventure around every bend. We pushed our way through a labyrinth of cypress knees where we discovered tadpoles with red eyes and the size of our palms. We readily succumbed to the swirling whims of the currents above the spring vents that gently twirled our kayaks giving the impression that we were trapped in a kaleidoscope. Hours later we returned home to Winnie the View, completely spellbound with the magic of the springs and committed to continue on our search for the bovine like water creatures.
Blue Springs State Park, just west of Orange City in central Florida, was recommended to us as a sure bet in our quest to find a manatee for Abby. Again the approach to the State Park was down a narrow sandy road, but this time it ended in a cul-de-sac with plenty of room to maneuver our 40′ rig. We launched our kayaks into the river with so much tannic acid that the water was almost opaque. As we paddled through the murky water, the prospect of finding the colossal mammals seemed grim as even our paddle blades seemed to vanish in the blackwater abyss. But, within ten minutes of our launch, we found the outlet of the spring with its warm, transparent water.
Unfortunately it was barricaded with buoys clearly marked with signs prohibiting our passage into the springs proper. We had heard earlier in the day from park officials that the springs were loaded with almost 400 manatee, which made the barricade that much more disappointing. About the time we were going to throw in the towel and head back to the RV to drive into the park, a giant light gray shadow passed under Abby’s brightly colored boat and a head the size of a basketball surfaced within inches of her paddle. It startled her so much that she almost tipped over in her kayak! Once over the initial shock of the close proximity and girth of the manatee, Abby relaxed and focused on getting to know the gentle giant. It hovered at the surface near her boat, it’s breath coming in soft sighs as it explored the entire perimeter. The manatee seemed particularly interested in her paddle and nuzzled it for quite some time, almost as if rubbing it’s nose on the blade to satisfy an itch. Next it moved underneath her boat nudging her hull and spinning her boat and even lifting her up almost completely out of the water. This dance continued for almost fifteen minutes, before it turned and briefly said hello to Peter and I before continuing into the river.
Minutes later a mother and calf swam under the barrier and veered off course to investigate the brightly colored watercraft. The calf and Abby were about the same size and seemed equally smitten with each other. They watched each other and played together for quite some time before the mother nudged the curious youngster to continue on their original path into the river. Abby waited at the mouth of the springs for hours while dozens of manatee surfaced near her kayak as they crossed the threshold of the Blue Springs Sanctuary often without a second glance at any of the other boats nearby. In our brief and not so scientific study, we couldn’t help but conclude that manatee definitely prefer enamored little girls in brightly colored boats. At dusk, Abby and Peter paddled ahead on the way back to Winnie the View, and as I trailed behind, the river echoed with the excited voice of a young girl. “Daddy, did you see how cute the baby was?” “Did you see how much it LOVED ME!” “Did you see it lift up my boat?” “Do you think we could put a tank in the trailer and take one with us?” I smiled quietly to myself, eternally grateful for our time on the road as a family, and all the incredible experiences we have shared together on this journey. I can’t even imagine the experiences that await us down the road, and cannot wait for our next family adventure.
Want to see the manatee in motion? Click here for Peter’s one minute video on their close encounter.