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Manatees - Exploring the Real Florida
Crystal River, Florida
Knowing the manatee is increasingly threatened by habitat destruction, pollution and collisions with boats, one would never imagine this to have been the case on this winter's sub-tropical day. Having woken up at 4am to be sure to make the 6am departure to the river, and not really knowing the specifics of the town called Crystal River, we approached the morning with a hurriedness similar to having had too much coffee, which incidently, we were drinking as well. The drive up from the Gulf Shores takes you through Tampa or Clearwater to US41, which you follow north past Tarpon Springs and eventually into Crystal River.
Several operators in town run snorkeling trips to see the manatees of the Crystal and Homosassa Rivers. Diving is not done with the manatees because it has been observed that the bubbles from exhalation, either the sound or appearance of them, or both, seems to agitate these mammals. There are theories suggesting that the exhalations of divers sound much like the exhalation of a manatee that is injured or otherwise distressed. In any case snorkeling is adequately exciting, for the waters are shallow and the creatures are evidently more at ease.
Both the Crystal and Homosassa Rivers are spring fed and maintain a year-round flow temperature of 72F. The importance of this comes into play in winter; when the waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico drop below 70F, these rivers become a warm bath by comparison. And as such, manatees congregate in these warmer waters for the winter. And the colder the days, the closer to the springs of the rivers they tend to come.
Our day of manatees started at the dive shop. Since we arrived on time, we were furnished with a thin wet-suit and had time to wander around looking at photographs of manatees. Soon enough it was time to depart and in the early dawn we drove to the boat launch on the Homosassa River. The river was surreal that morning, the overnight fog hadn't cleared yet and the sun was barely illuminating everything through it. We were a group of eight and as far as we could tell, we were the only group going upriver that day.
Spotting a manatee is far from a given, and having it stick around for a while with you in the water, comfortably, requires good luck and good sense as a group. It's illegal to block the path of a manatee, apart from its being poor judgement as these placid animals still have teeth and massive weight to throw around. It is also illegal to touch them, which, as comfort levels increase, tends to become tempting it seems (well to some at least...and may they stand barefoot on fire coral one day!:-) These sea cows are gentle giants. Surviving on a vegetarian diet of grasses and plants they can be readily approached by people in these rivers, particularly when they are most preoccupied with feeding.
We spent about an hour looking for our first manatee. Since they regularly surface to breathe, and since it was our lucky day, we spotted our first cow with open eyes and patience. One by one we climbed into the river and began to approach the animal; she was huge! She was overgrown with patches of algae and she was eating, chomping on grasses and plants seemingly oblivious to our approach. You can actually hear them eating, making them even more fun to watch. After taking a few photos and hovering near her for a long while, another boat of snorkelers finally arrived.
The new group of observers started to make their way over and we decided to explore some other areas of the river away from the crowds. Little known to us there were a myriad of interesting things to be seen in the Homosassa River. Swimming along the shoreline, and occasionally kicking into some of the grassy patches on the bottom we noticed bubbles rising from them. It seemed a novel thing to do, and we weren't seeing much of anything else, so we kept kicking into the grass deliberately watching the bubbles rise. There seemed to be a lot of them trapped in the growth, of course, it wasn't until we brought our noses above the surface that we realized we had released a whole bunch of farty-smelling gases -- not us this time, but the river grasses, they were a sulphurous caldron of stinkiness. Hoping to see another manatee away from the group we resumed snorkeling. In no time we had gleaned a view of a large turtle, many small fish and a gar-pike about a meter long.
We didn't have another encounter with a manatee that day but it was a beautiful experience to have seen one at all. Eventually we made our way back to the dive shop in Crystal River where it was possible to purchase a copy of a video shot by our guide, which we would have bought in all likelihood if we could have stood the wait; we were starving at that point. The drive home called for a stop at Mr. Souvlaki in Tarpon Springs; oh what yummy Greek food can be had there. When all was done, it was a great day that is Florida at some of its best.
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