Traveler comes face to face with a manatee in Crystal River, Fla.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. — My husband warned me there might not be any manatees left in Three Sisters Springs by the time we got to Crystal River. The tourism industry can’t control when the herbivores tire of overwintering in their drowsy freshwater spring and lumber out to graze in the grassy ocean along the Gulf Coast.

After driving 18 hours in two days in mid-March with an overnight stop in Dothan, Ala., I was worried we’d wasted our time.

There were flooding rains the first day we were there, so we drove down the coast, stopping at beaches and trying out my new metal detector. I found a rusty, square-headed nail buried in the sand. I was certain there was a galleon full of treasure just a little deeper, but my traveling companions pulled me in from the lightning-infested beach.

Hunter Springs Park

After we’d sloshed through 80 miles of Gulf Coast highways to St. Petersburg, we turned around to try to be back to Crystal River in time for a swim. It was raining intermittently, but we found a great little beach with snorkeling at Hunter Springs State Park.

A spring of pure, cool water effervesces from the virgin white sand. Fish weave through the limestone formations. There was loose silt on the bottom, and we learned that scientists have undertaken to re-establish beneficial grasses to further improve water clarity in King’s Bay. Ironically, they must protect the sea grass plantings from grazing manatees.

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We’d been swimming an hour when my husband, Jeff, started howling for me to “come quick.” I shot over, expecting to find him missing a limb. But he moaned that his recently resized wedding ring had slipped off. In his panicked kicking with rubber-finned feet he had obscured it in a cloud of silt in 10 feet of water.

The sun was going down anyway, so my son Thomas and I decided to swim the long way around the cove. I suddenly realized that the rounded gray mass in front of me was a manatee. It was resting on the bottom with its nose tucked down, looking like a mass of rising pumpernickel bread dough. I was nearly directly above it when it came up for a breath. Its whiskery face reminded me of a tuskless walrus. Nonplussed and not knowing how to swim backward, I held as still as I could. The manatee surveyed me placidly, just two whisker lengths away. I could have kissed its nose.

At the surface, it puffed like any other marine mammal, and with a wave of its flat, circular tail and paddlelike flippers, it pushed itself back to the bottom, where it tucked its nose back into napping position. Suddenly 18 hours of driving seemed like nothing. I was so excited, it took a long time to fall asleep that night.

Three Sisters Springs

The next day we ventured into the rain-washed morning, hoping at least one more manatee lingered at Three Sisters Springs.

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The channel that led to Three Sisters Springs was lined with palms and brilliant hibiscus before giving way to neighborhoods with docks in the channels that run behind.

Three Sisters Springs is a protected habitat, so there aren’t any structures immediately visible near the springs. There is a swim rope encircling the mouth of the entrance into which nothing but swimmers, fish and kayaks may venture. It was only 9 a.m. but already a tour boat was gearing up in the channel, equipping its tourists with float noodles, snorkels and fins.

Thirty manatees lounged on the brilliant white sand in the entrance to the secret little cove where the springs bubble up. Their attitude was much the same as our manatee from the night before, swimming in and out of the spring, shoulder to shoulder with humans.

They’re attracted to the area in the winter since the springs are a constant 72 degrees year-round and the ocean temperature drops below that. Manatees are sissies. They die if exposed to temperatures below 68 degrees for prolonged periods.

We kayaked into Three Sisters Springs first, since I didn’t have a waterproof camera and wanted to get a feel for what we were doing. We had to watch our paddles to keep from smacking the droll faces of exiting manatees. Since manatees are thought to be the explanation for mermaid sightings from earlier sailors’ accounts, it’s hard to imagine sailors got much of a look at their whiskered mugs with small round eyes, or their divided prehensile upper lip.

Three Sisters Springs looks like a Disney fairytale on steroids. You could read the date on a penny in 10 feet of crystalline, aqua-tinted water. The white sand bottom reflects the sunlight as though it gives off light itself. Schools of bright yellow fish glide around tufts of ancient coral in the deeper water where the springs undulate the sand.

Spanish moss veils the vegetation on the shore, with birds bursting their lungs in rejoicing song. I wondered what it would be like to happen on this place before it was discovered by others. The place seemed to have the same effect on the other tourists. There was no splashing or shouting. Most seemed as enthralled as I was by the sensory avalanche.

More manatees

We paddled to King’s Bay where we saw more manatees in the open water. We revisited Hunter’s Springs, just in case they had spit out a wedding ring in the night. No luck.

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The manatees are usually only in their winter springs from November to late March, but another of our sons took his family in mid-May and they got to see one manatee in Three Sisters and another in King’s Bay.

Manatees are listed as an endangered species. It’s a long drive, but there’s no other experience quite like meeting a manatee face to face.

(By Beth M. Stephenson For The Oklahoman)

Visit www.riverventures.com

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