Discovering Citrus County as the Only Place in the World for a Rare Manatee Encounter
By Diane Bedard
The water was still; blue and clear. Gray clusters scattered along the bottom. Just as I was contemplating the colorless masses, 800-pounds worth of gray broke the water’s surface.
Two perfectly round nostrils peered out from the rippling water, followed by friendly prehensile lips and many, many whiskers. Crinkly eyes popped up and looked at me!
The obvious curiosity of this fabled sea creature was apparent, and I was enchanted.
Home of the Manatee
The warm springs of Citrus County are an extremely popular refuge for endangered West Indian manatees. The springs allow the manatees to escape winter’s cold and serve as a place where many manatees come to mate, and then birth and nurse their young. In winter months, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is home to literally hundreds of manatees.
Peering around the river, it’s now easy to see the vague gray shapes become more defined. Individuals begin to pop out of the clusters—greeting one another with whisker-covered upper lips. Some show off their surprising agility in the crystal clear water with rolls and somersaults, creating light waves in the relatively still estuary. Some are just below the water’s surface and others resting on the river’s floor. As dawn is breaking, I am privileged to enter their domain.
As an outdoor adventurer, I knew that Crystal River is the best place to view manatees. Here I could really experience communing with them. In fact, this is the only place in America that you can legally enter the water with these gentle giants, swimming near enough to actually see their faces.
We pulled up to the edges of the marina. Members of our tour group were exclaiming in hushed tones, “There’s one!” and “Over there!” excitedly pointing to each manatee as it came into view. Our tour operator explained that several more were in the springs area.
Just a few feet away, I witnessed a group of manatees in sanctuary, floating just beneath the surface. Occasionally one would rise to breathe and I could catch a fleeting glimpse. Another would splash the water’s surface with its huge, fan-shaped tail to propel itself elsewhere, and disappear. I was nervous about getting into the water with so many large wild animals.
One at a time, our tour group entered the water, peering through snorkel masks. The world was so quiet that morning. Only the sound of birds calling to one another and an occasional fish breaking the still water.
Standing near the tour boat, I was shocked to see a ten-foot-long sea cow swim up and start snacking on the boat’s algae right next to me! Time stood still as I watched the manatee quietly eat. In awe of seeing this majestic creature up close in nature, fear gave way to elation as we continued to enjoy and take comfort in each other’s company. Suddenly, the manatee rolled over and seemed to wave to me. A moment later, he was gone.
Three Sisters Spring, the only spring in Crystal River that can be accessed by land, was the next area to explore. Though the springs feature a boardwalk that is open daily in the winter months, I was there to swim.
As I neared the spring, a cathedral of nature composed of crystal clear water with an aqua blue radiance lay before me, encompassed by saw palmettos, huge live oaks, dripping Spanish moss and palms. A log jutted into the open water where an Anhinga bird sunned itself; its wide, black wings spread out. Three turtles basked in the sunshine while a green heron was fishing near the shore. Above was a bright blue sky with random, billowing clouds.
In this magical place, I observed several manatees lazing around, a few visitors taking in the scene and schools of fish swimming in unison.
Little by little, anticipation ebbed as my connection to nature in this surreal setting roused me in a way that I didn’t know was possible. It dawned on me that I was in the midst of a life-changing event, sensing a new dimension to the world that I had thought was so familiar. Let the adventure begin.
Snorkeling around, every detail of every rock and fish shown true. I felt a rush of water from below and dived down to investigate the source. The springwater flowed from a five-foot crevice. Marvelously, it was so clear I could not see the water; only its results—like the wind pushing leaves of a tree. By looking for sand bubbling up from the spring’s floor, it was easy to see springs all around. Three Sisters Springs is reputed to emit 12 million gallons of crystal clear water daily at a consistent 72 degrees. No wonder this is where the manatees find their refuge each year.
A Gentle Connection
I spotted a mother manatee with her calf at her side. At first, her enormity intimidated me. I recalled my previous encounter with the algae-eating sea cow and relaxed.
I stayed still—I didn’t need to worry. She floated over alongside me, full of curiosity about what I was. There in the still waters, we examined each other with hesitant interest. Cautiously, we float nearer. I could see the fine lines of her skin—leathery and textured, like a basketball. As I looked into her crinkly face with all the bristles, I felt a gentle connection. I could feel her presence. At that moment, I knew both of us would remember this day, and each other, for the rest of our lives.
I looked at her calf, a small duplicate of its momma and again appreciated the majesty of nature. Without moving, we seemed to be able to transcend time and grow our connection. Then, in an instant, with one swoosh of her muscular tail; momma swam away with her baby alongside into the depths of the spring.
The encounter with the mother manatee filled me with a sense of how, as stewards of the earth, it is important to protect and care for this endangered and endearing animal. In experiencing the natural beauty of the springs and realizing this place as home to these gentle giants, nature unlocked a connection I will never forget.
“What would be better than this?” I asked myself. The reply came quickly; “Nothing.”