By Craig Walker
Swimming with the manatees in Florida's Crystal River and Kings Bay brings another view of The Real Florida, away from the theme parks, busy beaches and nightlife. It's a wintertime Florida, chilly in the mornings and mild during the day, in an area a bit removed from the annual influx of snowbirds.
"The water is 72 degrees, so it feels pretty good when the air's cold," says Marty Senetra of Bird's Underwater in Crystal River. "The boat is like a greenhouse."
Spring-fed Kings Bay becomes the Crystal River, flowing 6.7 miles westward to the Gulf of Mexico. The route is a renowned scuba and snorkeling paradise, and ideal for a close-up view of the endangered manatees. While more spread out during the summer, the manatees congregate in warmer water during the winter months, and the Crystal River is a prime hangout.
Getting into the river for an up-close-and-personal view of the huge sea cows requires a willingness to get up early and get wet. It also requires a knowledge of the rules, which are clear and strict. Basically, let them come to you.
"Scuba bubbles scare manatees away," Senetra says. "You're allowed to pet them with one open hand, if they approach you. You can't swim down to them and you can't get between a mother and her calf. But who's going to do that with a 2,000-pound manatee?"
The guided tour leaves about 6:15 a.m, when temperatures can dip into the mid-40s. There's a mandatory orientation video. The boats are enclosed and have a changing room. Rental equipment is available.
Once manatees are seen, the boat approaches slowly and the captain enters the water. Others are then invited to approach -- gingerly.
"We're usually out about three hours each trip in the winter, four to five hours in the summer," Senetra says. "We also shoot video every day, if customers want to buy a copy."
Federal wildlife officials say folks who take such ecotours are usually well-behaved.
"There are still a handful who don't get it," says Ranger Eileen Nunez of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. "A few people get carried away, since it can be a pretty awesome experience. When a manatee chooses to leave, they'll pursue, and we consider that to be harassment."
Cost of the trip is $27.50. Wet suit rental is $10, mask and snorkel rental add another $7. The video of the trip, if you want one, is an additional $30.
The town of Crystal River is on Florida's Gulf Coast, about 40 miles north of Tampa on four-lane U.S. 19. Orlando is about 40 miles east. Local hotels include a Days Inn and a Comfort Inn. There are a number of local restaurants and nightspots, including Charlie's Fish House (with a nice view of the quaint river).
For those who want to see manatees without getting wet, there's the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, about 10 miles south of Crystal River. The park, along the Homosassa River, features a fish bowl that allows visitors to walk underwater for a close-up view of floating manatees, schools of fish and other wildlife.
The state park's fish bowl features a 360-degree view in Caribbean-clear water. Park entry is $7.95, with discounts offered for AAA and AARP members. Children pay $4.95. The tour includes a 30-minute guided pontoon-boat ride to the park itself. Refreshments and restrooms are available once there.
The state park and the Crystal River aren't the only places to see manatees. During warmer months, the huge mammals can appear in nearly any Florida waterway. But during the colder months, they gravitate south, as many humans do. Warmer water discharged from the nearby Crystal River nuclear plant attracts many, while the Manatee Springs state park near Chiefland also has its share during the spring, summer and fall.
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