Greetings, humans! I’m Crystal, a North American manatee, and I’m back in my winter home in Crystal River, Florida. At 900 pounds and 9 feet long, I’m a shapely size for a manatee. On the other hand, my older brother, Curtis, weighs in at 3,500 pounds, is over 13 feet long, and reminds me of a floating potato. That’s a story for another day, though.
I spend November through March here before returning to the Gulf of Mexico. Some years I drift in the Gulf as far as Texas, and my friends on the East coast head the other direction towards Virginia, but Crystal River is where we’re the happiest.
However, this wasn’t always the case. In the winter of 2014, I could hardly see my flippers in front of my face. The water was murky, and Lyngbya—that nasty green algae—covered the bottom of the sea floor. It stopped up those lovely springs that pour fresh water into the rivers. The sparkling, clear water was becoming cloudy. There was less eelgrass, and we had difficulty finding enough to eat. It was almost enough to make us look for different winter homes. A few of us did.
It also seemed to run off those people local folks call “tourists” who come here to see what makes Crystal River so unique. They wear those funny plastic coverings over their eyes and stick a long tube in their mouth to breathe. But now, things are clearing up in Crystal River. Some humans saw the problem and started working on a plan to fix it!
Ilove the Crystal River Springs area, and I’m not alone. There are about 600 other manatees that hang out here in winter. After all, it is the second largest springs group in Florida. I’ve moseyed up to where it all starts, those almost 70 springs in Kings Bay. For you humans, it is like taking a cold shower in crystal-clear water.
But you want to know my favorite thing about the waters in Crystal River? Year-round, the water is a balmy 72°F/22°C, and that’s something to write home about.
Did you know that while my fellow manatees and I may sometimes be lovingly called floating potatoes because of our size, we’re actually all muscle? We lack blubber–an extra layer of fat that helps keep aquatic animals warm and that’s like you leaving your coat at home when it gets cold out.
M My annual pilgrimage to Crystal River in 2015 looked a little different, and to my surprise, I could actually see my flippers in front of my face. From what I overheard while basking in the sun, some people called “scientists” had been called in to help. They began removing the algae from the bottom of Kings Bay and planting new eelgrass. Which, for me, meant being able to see breakfast, lunch, and dinner all around.
Then in 2016, one of those big storms came along. I think you call them “hurricanes”? Anyway, I was out in the gulf then, but when I drifted into Crystal River a couple of months later, I saw a lot of damage to our beloved eelgrass. The humans hadn’t given up on us, though! They learned from that storm and began planting again. This time, they added a different variety of grass called Salty Dog, and boy, that stuff is tasty.
I’m thinking about staying here year-round. I won’t be lonesome. About 100 other manatees are already settling in permanently. After all, where else can you find water so clear that the sun’s rays penetrate the sandy bottom? Where the eelgrass grows a beautiful green with a yellow streak when the sun hits just right, and when I come up to breathe, the water’s surface looks turquoise blue. I’m hoping it stays like this. All those tourists snorkeling and kayaking seem to like it too.
So far, Crystal River conservation efforts are going great. Over 55 acres have been cleaned, and over 255 million pounds of algae have been removed—so I don’t have to touch that slimy mess when I’m grazing the 310,000 beds of Rockstar and Salty Dog they planted. Then there are the 750 new spring vents they found and opened. Those feel like what you all may call a “jacuzzi” when I swim through them.
They are even trying to educate those boaters that do so much damage to us when they hit us with a fast-spinning propeller. These guys can tear up a square foot of eelgrass when dropping their anchor. And when they drag that anchor just a few feet? They can destroy much more. Those propellers can be just as bad for the grass in shallow water as they are for our bodies.
While it’s been nice talking to you, I see a shiny patch of sunlight filtering through the water over a big bed of Salty Dog, and I’m ready for lunch.