Kary WrightOne of the great things about travelling in an RV is that you can pull off and enjoy unexpected things, and if you want to stay a night or two, you do. A couple of years ago we escaped the northern winter and headed to Florida. We had a few days to kill before meeting my daughter and brother in Orlando, so we camped around the area, looking for manatee. Exploring the map, we found Blue Springs State Park near Orange City, a mere 45 miles from the Orlando International Airport.

We pulled in, parked at our campsite and were anxious to go and explore. Following the paved trail to the springs, we first spotted a cute little gecko. I’m always amazed to see these quiet little fellows. They look so friendly, but they are fast when they want to be! There was crystal clear warm water by the trail boiling up in pools and flowing into the St. Johns River. There were even scuba divers in them. It seemed that everywhere we looked, there was some kind of wildlife. The water was full of fish, and being a certified fishing nut, I wondered if people would try to catch them. There were large turtles on the banks and on the floating logs.  We spotted a huge alligator, and then we were really rewarded — at the bottom of the river we saw our first manatee. It slowly surfaced for air, breathed out and then in loudly, and with a stroke of its tail it zoomed off upstream. Farther downstream there was another, and another, until they seemed to be everywhere.

This pontoon boat is easy to roll right onto (once the ramp is in place, of course).

This pontoon boat is easy to roll right onto (once the ramp is in place, of course).

Manatee can grow to be 3,000 pounds. They come up the stream to stay warm and can actually freeze to death very easily, even in Florida, and hence they search out these warm springs. Manatee cohabitate with the alligators. We even saw one nudge a large gator off of its perch atop a log! It must have thought that the alligator was a little too close. There were 130 manatee in the pools that day, and a naturalist in a canoe was counting, studying them, and answering people’s questions. He knew the manatee well, and said that he has even been dunked into the water by the large manatee that protects the group.

A few hundred yards later we noticed a dock with a pontoon boat tied to it. Pontoon boats are great for those of us in chairs as we can roll right on. We headed over to the ticket booth, learned that it was an accessible river tour, and immediately signed up to take a ride!

The operator opened the gate and waved me aboard. The boat was tied firmly to the dock, and a ramp was extended to make for easy wheelchair access. I had a comfortable spot next to my wife. We got our cameras ready and waited for the rest of the people to board. In a few minutes we were on our way.

The captain of the boat was also the tour guide. He was very knowledgeable about the river and the surrounding wildlife.

“Coming up ahead we have a large alligator on the right,” he said.

We all scoured the dense bush and the riverbank to spot the creature. It was amazing how such a large animal could hide.

“Over there,” pointed a lady.

Sure enough, there was a large alligator lying on the shore, nice and still. It almost looked like somebody had thrown an old tire onto the bank — it looked like black rubber.

The River That Flows Backwards
The St. Johns River starts in middle Florida and exits into the ocean just north of Jacksonville. It also seems to flow backwards, from South to North, and has a dark tea color. Apparently this color comes from tannin, and the water is quite pure despite its look. The river is 310 miles long, the longest in Florida, and the shores of the river are lined with water lettuce, the main food of the manatee.

“Over there we have some baby alligators, don’t they look cute!” our guide said.

“Where is the mother?” asked a passenger.

“Pick up one of those babies and you will know within a few seconds,” he replied. Apparently the mother alligators are very protective.

These baby alligators are so cute! But don’t pick them up — their protective mama is close by.

These baby alligators are so cute! But don’t pick them up — their protective mama is close by.

“Over here we have an island called Goat Island,” he said, pointing to our left. “It got its name when a steamship ran aground on it in the 1800s during the night. Apparently somebody had moved a light that signalled a corner. The steamship had to unload some of its cargo to back off of the island, and left the goats behind. A goat is a desert animal and as such they will not swim; hence, that island was inhabited by goats for a long time.”

“Off to our right we have an anhinga, also known as a hell diver, or a piano bird due to the wings looking like a piano keyboard. Does anybody know why the wings are outstretched?” he asked.

“He is drying off because he has very little oil and can become waterlogged, and drown,” replied one man.

“Correct,” came the reply.

It was amazing to find such an accessible treasure packed with interesting wildlife so close to a major center in Florida. It was a reminder not to prejudge what you’re going to find when you go to a new area. Just explore and enjoy!

Frequently Asked Questions
Was the area good for wheelchair accessibility?
The area was fantastic. There were trails and boardwalks that were great for viewing the wildlife.

How is the weather there?
The weather was fantastic, too. It was December and we were only about 45 miles from Orlando, Florida — mid-70s!

How accessible was the boat?
It was great for people in wheelchairs. A ramp made it a flat roll from the dock to the boat. They even supplied refreshments for a dollar each if needed. The staff was very accommodating.

Do they have a website?
Yes, it’s www.sjrivercruises.com.