Kaanapali Beach in Hawaii has sea tur- tles; 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
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 slumber-
ing in the roped-o; sanctuary section that’s
o;-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.
— Dana Rebmann
A wildlife reserve in
Florida allows guests
to swim with manatees
in their natural habitat
The Man atee
The refuge is a
Water is clearer in the winter,
but clients will see more manatees
in warmer months.