Here are a few natural things I associate with the holiday season: tangerines in my stocking (or now my kids’ stockings), fresh-squeezed orange juice from a backyard tree, and the chance to see manatees in one of our local springs.
Winter is manatee-viewing season because when the temperature drops, manatees seek the constant 72-degree waters of the springs. As big as they are, West Indian Manatees are sensitive to cold, and it’s a contributing factor to their status as an endangered species. (Other factors are injuries from boats and sadly, a mysterious ailment and a red tide this year that resulted in record manatee deaths).
During periods of colder weather (when the water drops below about 68 degrees Fahrenheit), large numbers of manatees congregate in places like Blue Spring on the East Coast and Crystal River/Homosassa Springs on the West Coast. During cold snaps, you can also find groups of them gathered in the waters next to power plants since power plants constantly pump out warm water.
Because manatees seek protection in our warmer, inland waters and are by default in close proximity to people, there are protections in place to keep manatees safe and free from harassment. In most places in Florida, people are not allowed to touch manatees. In Blue Spring during the winter season (November 15 through March 15), there is no swimming, snorkeling, diving, or boating allowed, but you can walk out on the docks and watch them float by.
The exception to this rule is Crystal River, where people are allowed to swim with manatees, and there are many charter snorkeling and dive trips allowing tourists to see manatees up close. There’s some controversy about this exception (as recently reported in this National Geographic article), but it’s a big tourist draw, and people are curious about these gentle giants.
Manatees are revered as well as endangered, and if you look closely, you will find manatee images all over Florida. They’re an integral part of natural Florida and easy to spot during the winter. If you’re in Florida, go see some sea cows this holiday season.