Going Head-to-Head with Manatees

Pukka is not a people-friendly feline—unless, of course, he’s snuggling up with his housemates, Martha and Rick. Only then does he allow his true cat-onality to express itself. His prevalent feral spirit involves patrolling his environment, bringing home small rodents, and indulging a curiosity with another primitive mammal—the manatee.

Not that Pukka would actually jump into the waters of the nearby Blue Spring State Park, a designated manatee refuge. Heavens, no. One accidental dunk a few years ago in the backyard pool was enough of a water adventure for him. Instead, he sates his inquisitiveness by curling up with a good book and vicariously head-bumping the large, marine mammals sometimes known as sea cows.

During a recent visit to central Florida, Martha and Rick took my husband Bob and me to Blue Spring to see the manatees. But not without first getting some advice.

According to Pukka, who conveyed his knowledge through Martha, Blue Spring is the largest natural spring associated with Florida’s St. John’s River. The longest river in Florida, it is noteworthy for its lazy northward flow, commercial and recreational use, and manatees.

“The number of Florida’s West Indian manatees there is growing like snowbirds flocking to the Sunshine State,” he meowed, adding that the local marine mammals are bigger than their Amazonian and West African cousins. They can grow to 13 feet long and weigh as much as 1,300 pounds. They also have paddle-like tails and wrinkled skin.

While manatees look roly-poly, Pukka continued, they are really quite lean. With only about an inch of fat beneath their leathery skins and a very slow metabolism, water temperatures below 68°F bring on cold stress syndrome, a condition comparable to hypothermia. It can be deadly. So the manatees leave the colder waters of the St. Johns River for the safety and comfort of the 72° Blue Spring.

Pukka emphasized that point by strolling out to the lanai and plopping in the sunlight that poured into it.

Acknowledging that sanctuaries such as Blue Spring are vital for manatees’ survival, we took Pukka’s advice and headed over to the state park. There, we trekked a one-third-mile boardwalk that parallels Blue Springs Run. The trail meanders through a lush hammock from the parking lot at St. Johns River to the run’s headspring.  

Blue Spring is a misnomer. The waters are green—emerald, crystal clear, and transparent. Beneath the mosaic-like ripples that fracture the water’s glassy surface, I spotted what looked like long, flat rocks that resembled the torpedo-shaped river rocks on Belle Isle of the St. James River in Richmond, Virginia.

Until they fluttered. As did my heart, as manatees performed a slow, mesmerizing aquatic ballet that corresponded to their cycles of sleeping submerged and surfacing for air. They spend about half of their lives sleeping.

Doing a quick count, I exclaimed aloud that there had to be at least a hundred of them.

“The official count today is 262,” a park visitor corrected me.

She knew because the Save the Manatee Club conducts and publishes a daily roll call. Founded in 1981 by former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham and singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, it is the world’s leading manatee conservation organization and exists solely to protect manatees and their habitats.

The day before our visit, the club had released 12 manatees into Blue Spring Run, an ideal location since the animals can be easily monitored in the spring and the surrounding waters.

The local manatee population has grown from about 36 animals when research began in the 1970s to as many as 500 animals today. Rehabilitated manatees sport GPS radio tags on their tails, which are monitored by the Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP). According to the MRP, some manatees seek out Blue Spring in the summer to give birth.

Temperatures in the spring remain a constant 72°F, creating a safe haven. Although there are many threats to manatees, including habitat loss, pollution, and algae blooms, more than 41% of manatee deaths are human-related, primarily due to watercraft collisions. We were able to see propellor scars on the manatees that floated below us on the walkway.

The trail ends at the headspring known as “The Boil,” which looks more like a simmer.

Most of this water, which began as last year’s rain, bubbles up from an aquifer that flows downhill from areas in north and central Florida through limestone bedrock. Each day, from a depth of 120 feet, more than a million gallons of warm water are forced up from the caverns, resulting in “The Boil.”

According to Journey North, a project funded by the University of Wisconsin—Madison Arboretum, that’s about 72,000 gallons every minute, or 4,333,333 gallons per hour. By comparison, a typical shower uses 30 gallons; a load of laundry, 40 gallons; and a car wash, 60 gallons.

The spring can be enjoyed by swimmers, paddlers, snorkelers, and certified scuba divers with a partner. The state parks, however, limit access when manatees or alligators are congregating.

In addition to the manatees and alligators, the park has a healthy population of various fish, including the alligator gar. Elsewhere in the park dwell the Florida scrub-jay, the state’s only endemic bird, and the endangered Anastasia Island Beach Mouse.

For centuries, the Blue Spring was home to the Timucua tribe. In 1766, John Bartran, a British botanist, explored the area for the Crown. It was settled in 1856 by Louis Thursby and his family. The Thursby house, built in 1872, remains a tourist stop at the state park.

In 1972, Blue Spring became a state park with the help of Jacques Cousteau, whose Undersea World series included an episode called “The Forgotten Mermaids.”


Yes. While manatees are Florida’s official state marine mammal, anthropologists agree that manatees have inspired mermaid legends for millennia.

For example, in his epic poem The Odyssey (circa 8th century BC), Homer introduced the siren, a half-bird, half-woman creature who lured sailors to destruction by the sweetness of her song. She is similar to the half-fish, half-human creature that 4th century BC Babylonians called Oannes.

And on January 9, 1493, Christopher Columbus documented the legend, writing in his journal that:

“On the previous day, when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro [Haiti], he said he quite distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.”

Voyages of Columbus, 218

Okay. Stretching one’s imagination, manatees could be mistaken for humans from afar. After all, their forelimbs have fingerlike bones, their neck vertebrae allow them to turn their heads, they use their flippers to “walk” along the bottom while they hunt for food, and they scoop vegetation into their prehensile lips.

Perhaps as ironic as the mermaid similarity is the manatee’s relationship to the elephant. Although they resemble walruses or chunky porpoises and are sometimes referred to as sea cows, manatees belong to a group of animals called Sirenia (i.e., Homer’s sirens), which includes elephants.

With thick, wrinkled skin, bristle-like hairs, and a herbivorous diet, manatees probably descended from a four-legged, elephantine-wading mammal. Scientists theorize that as sea grasses began to grow, manatees choose water over land. 

Like elephants, manatees are intelligent. They have good long-term memory, show signs of complex associative learning, demonstrate discrimination and task-learning abilities similar to dolphins, and communicate with a wide range of sounds.

When we returned home, Pukka trilled, reminding us that cats also communicate with a wide range of sounds. Just another reason, perhaps, why he likes going nose-to-nose with manatees.

Photo credits: Pukka and the Manatee by Martha Hustek; Blue Springs by Pat Walsh

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One thought on “Going Head-to-Head with Manatees

  1. This blog post is fascinating and packed with amazing information about manatees! I had no idea about their connection to elephants or their complex learning abilities. My logical question is: Have you personally seen manatees in the wild, and if so, what was your experience like? Great comment! Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. Unfortunately, I have not personally seen manatees in the wild yet, but after writing this post and learning more about them, I am definitely eager to!

    mr w



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