Water is clearer in the winter, but clients are likely to see manatees in warmer months too. // © 2017 Plantation Adventure Center
Feature image (above): The refuge is a 90-minute drive from Orlando. // © 2017 Getty Image
Kaanapali Beach in Hawaii has sea turtles; La Paz, Mexico, has whale sharks; and the Cayman Islands has Stingray City. But I wasn’t prepared for what lives below the surface in Crystal River, Fla.
About a 90-minute drive west of Orlando, the city of Crystal River is home to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The refuge is the winter site of what’s said to be the world’s largest herd of manatees in a natural habitat. I never thought of manatees — wrinkly, rotund and slow-going — as particularly cute, until I zipped up a wetsuit and quietly lowered myself into the murky, spring-fed waters near Three Sisters Springs in Kings Bay.
At first I couldn’t see much of anything. Green and cloudy, the 5-foot-deep water was monochromatic. At about 70 degrees, the water wasn’t cold, but my heart rate jumped nonetheless.
Ross Files, our Plantation Adventure Center guide, said the best way to see a manatee was to act like a manatee. As I ventured away from the pontoon boat, I repeated his mantra: “Slow, still and quiet.”
My first glimpse was of a barnacle-covered tail, but no fins. Apparently, manatees don’t like the ruckus they can cause. I couldn’t get close enough quickly enough to see much more.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to. There were an estimated 150 manatees in the water that day, and though I didn’t realize it at first, another so-called sea cow was headed my way.
This manatee had no respect for my personal space. After a face-to-face stare down, it began nudging my hand. This gentle giant clearly wanted its rough, whisker-covered nuzzle scratched, and I was more than happy to oblige. I had the same feeling you get when coming nose to nose with a warm puppy. Forget cute; this itchy bundle — along with all of her bloated-looking buddies — had suddenly become downright irresistible to me.
I’m glad I had met my match, because not all of the manatees were as inquisitive and outgoing. Some spent the morning slumbering in the roped-off sanctuary section that’s off-limits to humans, but the curious set outnumbered people in the water. My small snorkeling group of six moved around a bit, but during my two hours in the water, I never ventured far. I had no desire to leave. My new, nosy friend was the smallest of a pair, possibly a mother and child, and they seemed just as happy to be spending the morning with me as I was cuddling against them.