BEACON PHOTO/BARB SHEPHERD

Blue Spring State Park in Orange City shattered earlier record manatee counts during the last two weeks of January, when winter storms dropped the water temperature in the St. Johns River to around 55 degrees.

To avoid the chill, manatees gather in places like the Blue Spring Run, which maintains a 72-degree temperature all year long.

According to park staff, Jan. 18 broke previous records with a count of 663 manatees. That record was broken the very next day, and numbers kept rising. On Jan. 24, 725 sea cows were recorded visiting the park.

“So far this season, they look really good, really healthy,” said Cora Berchem, of the nonprofit organization Save the Manatee Club.

More manatees mean more visitors to the park, prompting warnings posted on the Blue Spring Park Facebook page that wait times to get into the park could be as long as two hours.

“Best chance to get into the park is before 11 a.m. or after 3 p.m.,” according to the Jan. 24 post.

Manatee counts remained high that week, peaking on the freezing weekend of Jan. 29 with another new record count of 747 manatees.

“Blue Spring will start trial testing not allowing guests into the park briefly midday when the crowds and lines get too insane outside the park for the safety of our staff and visitors,” the Jan. 29 Facebook post reads.

The park often closes in the summer when it is at capacity, staff said, but this is one of the first times for experimenting with brief closures during winter peak times, generally around midday.

The high counts are a welcome record for inland Central Floridians, as other locations, including Indian River Lagoon and Tampa Bay, in 2021 experienced the largest number of manatee deaths since mortality tracking began 50 years ago.

The deaths of more than 1,100 manatees last year prompted conservation groups to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Feb. 1, alleging that the agency has failed to protect critical habitat.

The mortality rates were linked to the loss, due to pollution, of aquatic vegetation that manatees feed on.

Berchem said research is underway to track migrants from the east coast of Florida that may be moving inland to find more vegetation.

“There are two or three manatees that have never been seen here from Brevard County, identified through our photo-matching program,” Berchem said.

Trackers identify individual manatees by the patterns of scarring on their backs from encounters with boat motors.

A moratorium on management of aquatic vegetation from October to March in the Blue Spring area helps ensure there is plenty of food, including invasives, like water hyacinth, which manatees readily feed on.

There have been signs, however, of a loss of submerged vegetation along the St. Johns River to the north, up into the Lake George area, according to Berchem.

“We are all stunned about that,” Berchem said of a recent summer vegetation survey.

The loss of submerged vegetation around areas like Juniper Creek and Salt Springs could be due to hurricane activity, which can churn up the water, but researchers are still unclear, Berchem said.

“There are some thin animals up in that area, something we have to keep an eye on,” Berchem said.

And as other areas lose food, there may be an uptick in manatees migrating to more waterways with plentiful supplies.

“Blue Spring can support 500, 700 manatees, absolutely, but if it gets to 1,100, 1,300, is that habitat going to be able to support the population?” Berchem wondered.

So far this manatee season — which generally runs from November to early April — the manatees around Blue Spring are thriving.

To view a live webcam at Blue Spring, visit https://www.savethemanatee.org/manatees/manatee-webcams/

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