Wakulla Springs State Park just south of Tallahassee is fast becoming a manatee haven. Each winter, more and more of the impressive sea cows are finding the constant temperatures of the springs to their liking. Climb up the diving platform on a cool morning and you might spot a dozen manatees swimming around the spring bowl. And you may find another dozen farther down the river along the jungle boat route.
Biologists believe that Wakulla Springs is receiving the overflow from rising manatee populations in the Crystal River/Homosassa Springs area along the north-central Florida Gulf Coast. They first started showing up in the park on a steady basis about eight years ago, and word is evidently spreading in whatever method manatees communicate with each other, because numbers have been increasing every year since, especially in the late fall and winter months. The spring's constant temperature of around 70 degrees is warmer than the Gulf of Mexico and most rivers during the winter months, and manatees can die if exposed to cold water for long periods.
So how do manatees benefit Wakulla Springs? For one, they are underwater grazing animals, and they graze and graze and graze, eating up to 10-15% of their enormous body weight each day. That's good news since the spring and river has been plagued with non-native hydrilla.
Manatees are also fun to watch, attracting visitors to the park. On a recent weekend, I watched a mother manatee and her calf around the main springs. Another adult approached, presumably a male, who obviously sought the attention of the adult female, repeatedly rolling over on his back and nudging the female. The female avoided the flirtations and eventually dove deeper into the spring to ditch the suitor, followed closely by her calf.
Researchers are studying the movements of Wakulla manatees and at least two have satellite tracking devices tied to their tails. You can see them in the park because the devices float on the water similar to crab traps.
So will manatee numbers in the park continue to rise? If Blue Spring State Park along the St. Johns River is any indication, they just might. In 1970, two years after the state purchased the site, researchers tracked 14 manatees in the spring run. By 2005, after years of park improvements and manatee protection efforts, wintering manatee numbers exceeded 200. And during the winter of 2010/2011, a record 344 different manatees-including 27 calves-visited the spring at least once.
Let's hope the "manatee telegraph" continues to spread the news about the good life at Wakulla Springs.