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Manatee Springs

Manatee Springs
Manatee Springs

Manatee Springs may well be the jewel of the Suwannee.

This first-magnitude gusher pours between 50 and 150 million gallons of clear, 72-degree water into the tannin-stained Suwannee River each day. The main spring pool is about 25 feet deep, and gives rise to a quarter-mile spring run that during the colder months serves as a haven for the Florida Manatee.

View of Manatee Springs and Its Spring Run
View of the Springs and the Spring Run

I first swam in this spring when I was about 13 years old. The water is just as cool and inviting now as it was then. It's cool enough that you don't want to get in. But once accustomed to its refreshing coolness, well you might not want to get out.

Manatee Springs Underwater View
Manatee Springs Beneath the Surface

A boardwalk along the spring run leads you out to Manatee Springs State Park's dock on the river.

Manatee Springs Boardwalk
The Boardwalk Along the Spring Run

Here at the dock, the Spring Run flows into the Suwannee River about 25 miles north of the river's mouth at the Gulf of Mexico.

View of the Suwannee River from the Manatee Springs Dock
View of the Suwannee River from the State Park's Dock

On the Travels of William Bartram

During a December canoe trip down the entire Suwannee River in the late 1970s, I got into reading William Bartram, especially on those cold, rainy days when we decided it would be best not to travel, and instead spent those long, drizzly hours cooped up in our soggy tents.

While we were still upriver from Manatee Springs, I read Bartram's account of it on his visit here in 1774. See the Travels of William Bartam, edited by Mark Van Doren, pp. 196-197.

Bartram described in his eloquent 18th-century way what this place was like then. Reading his account, and looking at the spring and the spring run, you'd recognize what he was talking about.

As you might have imagined, the indigenous inhabitants of that time were as fond of Manatee Springs as are people of today. Bartram described the spring basin and the spring run, writing that they were "peopled with prodigious numbers." Regarding wildlife, he mentioned seeing "a variety of fish and other animals," including "the alligator and the manate (sic) or sea cow, in the winter season."

Catfish Hotel at Manatee Springs

When you first set eyes on the Catfish Hotel, otherwise known as the Catfish Sink, you might think it's nothing more than a green slime pond because it's almost completely covered in duck weed. But, as is so often the case in life, the true beauty is hidden, and not reflected by what you see on the surface.

The Catfish Hotel at Manatee Springs
The Catfish Hotel

Beneath that icky green covering lies a 90-foot-deep pool of clear, bluish cool, pure waters springing up from far underground. This water from the earth then re-enters the aquifer through what's called a "siphon." I guess you could say a siphon is the opposite of a spring. Whereas as a spring releases water from the ground, a siphon sucks it back underground.

Because the Catfish Hotel has both a spring and a siphon, there's no spring run, just this duckweed-covered water hole.

While I was here this day, the bubble trails of SCUBA divers appeared on the surface. Soon thereafter, a cave diver broke through the duckweed looking as if he could be the Creature from the Black Lagoon, that great old Florida 50s movie filmed in part at Silver Springs.

A Cave Diver Surfaces from the Catfish Hotel
A Cave Diver Breaks Through the Duck Weed

It's been a few years since I've SCUBA dived the Catfish Hotel, but I remember it as being one of the coolest spring dives I ever did. The duckweed covering darkens the water underneath. On that day, however, there was--as there often is--an opening in the duckweed near the spring's center, allowing a shaft of strong sunlight to penetrate the relative darkness. It was eerily beautiful--truly something to remember.

So why do they call it the Catfish Hotel? Because it's loaded with catfish. They hang around mostly near the bottom--bunches of them. I don't know how they got in here or what they eat, but they are numerous. Maybe Manatee Springs State Park's "no fishing in the Catfish Hotel" rule help keeps them plentiful.

You don't have to be a cave diver to dive here, just an open-water diver like me. For this guy, there's enough to see without going into a cave. Beware the siphon, however. The current near it is strong, and I'm told it could suck you in. I remember studiously avoiding it.

The Facilities at Manatee Springs State Park

The Park offers picnic grounds with pavilions, a concession stand which I think is open only during the warm season, overnight camping, and eight and a half miles of trails for hiking and biking.

This is a great spot for camping, snorkeling, SCUBA diving, swimming, and having fun in the Florida sun.

Manatee Springs Picnic Grounds
Manatee Springs Picnic Grounds

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