Blended Learning About Wildlife: Saint John’s River and the Hontoon Dead River in Florida

September through May is an excellent time to take student travel groups on an eco tour of the Saint John’s River. Student travelers will be fascinated by the famous manatee, the gigantic sea creature with a Buddha-like personality. At the intersection of Blue Spring State Park and Saint John’s River, students are likely to see this joyous creature that visits the back-waterways of Florida seasonally, where there are warm waters and plenty to eat.

The world of reptiles, wading birds and more awaits the eager student of the environment who will learn more about Central Florida through active immersion in the natural world.

Classroom Preparation for the Adventure of Saint John’s River
Have students engage in online studies about wading birds such as the blue heron, wood duck or water thrushes. In reptile species, students can investigate alligators, turtles, frogs, lizards or snakes – all plentiful in the Central Florida region. Or, perhaps they are interested in studies about bottlenose dolphins and river otters or even muskrats- all native to this eco-system.

Why Are People So Fascinated with the Manatee?
Also known as the ‘sea cow’ the manatee has a bizarre yet fascinating appearance. Its overly large body is buoyant while its head is small in comparison. A set of docile eyes gives the manatee the natural look of compassion and empathy not seen in many species. The manatee lives in the Saint John’s River from November-March. During this time no swimming or boating activity may occur at manatee protected areas – including Blue Spring State Park. Student travel groups may still observe them in their winter habitat. This part of Saint John’s River provides the warmth and food the manatee need and all who visit love to gaze on the many manatee that gather in the River.

Riverboat tours of the Saint John’s River
The upper Saint John’s River provides diverse swampy habitats and boating activities are not restricted during manatee season. Upriver, there are an assortment of riverboat tours to choose from. Schedule a boat tour in advance in conjunction with a student travel company. Touring the river like this will give students a chance for close observation of many species of mammals, reptiles or birds they have studied beforehand. A science or environment teacher’s presence enhances the experience. On board, students will listen as a tour guide points out and describes different habitats and parts of the river, while students look closely for the animals that live in Central Florida’s inland rivers.

Facts About the Saint John’s River & the Hontoon Dead River in Florida
The Saint Johns River is unusual because it flows south to north, is relatively young (5,000 years old), and runs a length of 310 miles. Yet, it flows very slowly, making it the perfect environment for a student group study of an eco system. The Saint Johns River basin is inhabited by 3.5 million people and spans 8,840 square miles. The northern end is in a warm temperate climate while the southern end of Saint John’s River is in a subtropical climate. This student tour focuses on the area close to Orlando, or Central Florida.

A canal links the Saint John’s River to the Hontoon Dead River. A dead river is very much alive. What distinguishes it from other rivers is there is little current. Snake Creek is another tributary that surrounds Hontoon Island State Park. This is another warm water refuge for manatees and is protected by the State of Florida. Manatees are reportedly friendly to paddlers on the Hontoon Dead River. The marshy landscape beyond the island is lined by Cypress Swamps and hardwood hammocks. Here, waterfowl, reptiles and various swamp vegetation can be studied by student groups. The slow movement of the river is an advantage.

Central Florida Eco Tour for Student Travelers
With a span of 310 miles there is so much to see on the Saint Johns River. Each of the tributaries has something different to offer, too. The most exciting thing for students will most likely be sighting manatees or even getting close. However, boat tours can only get so close to see them in season without disrupting their protected natural environments. The boat tour has a great deal to offer student groups by passing through different environments on the river, illustrating diversity of habitat and species.

Post Trip Sharing
Many students will want to post photos to their individual Facebook accounts. Why not make a community Facebook page just for the adventure? If set-up of a special page is too complicated, consider asking the educational tour company to use their Facebook page to share these outdoor adventures. What is important is sharing in one place on the Web, to gain differing perspectives. Pictures and captions of the class trip to Central Florida are sure to be colorful. Sharing is a great way to engender learning.

Have students collect information about the mammals, reptiles, or waterfowl they choose to study. Share the experience of seeing actual manatee in one whole class session – using photos, film and writings captured along the way.