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