During the winter, the river and the springs there are a haven for West Indian manatees seeking a respite from the chilly waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Manatees are big, bulky aquatic mammals, some weighing as much as 1,800 pounds. You'd think a creature that large would have plenty of blubber to keep it warm. But manatees actually have less cold-weather protection than a bottlenose dolphin, so the sea cows are at risk of health-endangering cold stun when the water temperature drops below 70 degrees.
A couple of weeks ago, boat captains Mike and Stacy Dunn of Manatees in Paradise took me and two other members of Clearwater Marine Aquarium's rescue team on a snorkeling tour of manatee hot spots at Crystal River. The Dunns are ardent conservationists who are very concerned about the well-being of the area's wintering manatees, which have become a popular tourist attraction.
Satisfying travelers who come from all over the world to see these endearing animals must be balanced with the needs of this endangered species. As a result, there are numerous rules to follow when swimming with the gentle giants, and refuges have been set aside that are off-limits to swimmers. The manatees know just where they are and head there when they want to rest undisturbed.
Air bubbles bother manatees, so scuba diving with them isn't permitted. Swimmers must stay on the surface -- masks and snorkels are recommended -- and practice "passive" observation. That means no diving to the bottom, no chasing the manatees and no touching them.
Following these rules is the least we can do in return for the privilege of sharing their space. The calves (babies) are quite curious about people and, much to our delight, one swam right up to the pontoon boat I was riding on and stuck its nose out of the water to check us out.
Here's something I didn't know until I went swimming with them: Manatee mamas make the cutest squeaking sound to call to their calves. We heard one mother do just that when her baby wandered too far from her for her comfort.
We were pretty frigid by the time the three-hour tour was finished, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. The scenery in the river is worth the trip alone, although the water quality has degraded over the years in some areas because of saltwater intrusion.
Decades ago, I went scuba diving in Kings Bay Springs at Crystal River, and it truly was a crystal river then. It was also one of the top scuba destinations around. Now, the underwater visibility in Kings Bay and other parts of the river is limited to just a few feet. As a result, the manatees can be swimming close by -- but you might not see them until they're nearly on top of you.
If you ever get a chance to visit this beautiful part of my home state, I urge you to do so. This is the real Florida, and we must do all we can to preserve it for future generations to enjoy, but also for the sake of the many animal and plant species that live there.
For more information, please visit the official site of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge by clicking here. For more on Mike and Stacy Dunn's Manatees in Paradise tours, click here.