Blue Spring and the Search for Margarito

I debated very little about what I should get Travis for Christmas in 2013.

The man is from Manatee County, FL. He has a giant chestpiece tattoo prominently featuring two manatees (along with a mermaid). Obviously, the right thing to do was to adopt him a manatee from the Save the Manatee Club.

The Adopt-A-Manatee program is an ingenious fundraising campaign from the state's preeminent manatee activism group. If I recall correctly, my parents adopted me a manatee when I was little, which sparked my obsession way back in the day. This is how it works. You pay $35 (a pitiable sum). Then you choose from a list which manatee you'd like to adopt. Then the Save the Manatee Club sends you a certificate of adoption, a biography of your manatee, and a gift, which right now is a heart-shaped ornament. Totally worth it.

The list of adoptable manatees is organized by where they migrate to in the winter- Tampa, Alabama, Homasassa, and Blue Spring. I browsed the options to see which one really spoke to me. Rocket? Phyllis? Whiskers???? All very tempting choices. But then I stumbled on Margarito.

Margarito's mom is Lily, and she brought him to Blue Spring for the first time in 1984. He was supposed to be named Margarita after Margaritaville (Jimmy Buffet is a major supporter of the Save the Manatee Club). However, when he was born male some bilingual problem-solver christened him with possibly the most ridiculous name you can give a one ton sea mammal. But that's not all. He likes to hang out with the guys, spending a lot of time with Howie and Doc, but his best friend is Brutus, the 1900 lb manatee who has been tracked since the 70s. Also, poor Margarito's tail is also pretty chewed up from a motorboat collision, the dude is missing a flipper because he got tangled up in fishing line (throw your fishing line away in the trash NOT IN THE RIVER). I think he's kind of accident prone. Margarito was clearly Travis' manatee.

Serendipitously, Margarito spends the winters in Blue Spring, which is one of the manatee viewing sites listed on Manatee Count 2013/14. So for Travis' birthday in January, I planned a trip to Blue Spring to go find Margarito.

Blue Spring has been pumping fresh water into the St. Johns River for ages, but it's only been protected by the state since the 1970s, when it was turned into a State Park and a manatee refuge. Last winter over 400 manatees were spotted there, but when the park was first established there were only 35 manatees who used it as their winter haven near Orange City, FL.

Because of the massive number of manatees present in the cooler months, the spring run is completely closed off to swimmers and boaters though there is an observation deck to allow people to see them doing their thing. However, scientists take advantage of the conditions to do research, and over the years have created an extensive family tree. Sick and injured manatees are also easier to pick out to be rescued for rehabilitation. The huge number of people who make the trip to to the park put the manatees in the spotlight, as well as the issues that affect them, like clean water and ecology. And if you can't make it to Blue Spring, you can always watch the live ManaTV webcam.

After our trek into the Ocala National Forest, we headed off for Orange City. We arrived about an hour before the park closed, and man. There were a LOT of manatees. The spring run is a little tributary running into the main river, and it is clear and blue and beautiful. According to the gift shop sign there were 164 manatees present that day! I really got to boost the count on the spreadsheet, which, as all you Type A folks know, is extremely satisfying.

I set out on the main mission of the day: Operation Find Margarito. This was not an easy task. Most of the manatees were hanging out on the other side of the river near the opposite bank, and there were so many of them! It was difficult to pick out the one with the one flipper. So we switched tactics and looked for one with his mangled tail. Still no good. I resorted to calling his name. FUTILE. In the end, I had to console myself with the knowledge he had been spotted earlier in the season and must have been one of the manatees we saw that day.

So here's the thing guys. Florida's springs are vital to the survival of manatees, as well as the ecosystems they're apart of. I'm gonna go ahead and get back on my soap box. There are hundreds of lifestyle changes you can make to protect our water, like conserving water and electricity, driving less, buying less, living small, and supporting organic farms and chemical free landscaping. There are also tangible success stories accomplished by folks who care about our environment, like a North Florida dairy farmer who uses a closed loop system to recycle manure on his farm instead of letting it leach into the aquifer, or the citizens of Wakulla County who banded together to prevent development around the Wakulla Springs head springs. But here's something else you can do: support clean water initiatives. In fact, here's an easy thing you can do, just sign this petition. Learn about where your water comes from, and more importantly where it goes after you use it. Because clean and safe water is not just necessary for manatees, we need it too.