It is early morning. Apparently manatees get going bright and early. They wake up, look for some breakfast, hang out with their buddies, and then spend a healthy part of the afternoon napping. It sounds like a good life. The water is as smooth as glass as our small group glides out on a pontoon boat from the Plantation on Crystal River into Kings Bay – our mission, to swim with a few of the 400 West Indian manatees that migrate here each winter for the warmth of the river’s natural springs.
I am here on the Gulf Coast in search of the wilder side of Florida, beyond the beaches and amusement parks, an adventure that will have me swimming with these magnificent manatees, heading out on an air boat in search of alligators, rolling on the river on a wildlife safari and cycling the Withlacoochee State Trail.
Swimming with Manatees
As I float in the Crystal River, facemask down and snorkel up, all I see is sand and silt. The water is murky this morning. We had been schooled in proper manatee etiquette before our departure, an education which stresses passive observation; no frantic splashing, no two handed touches, no chasing the animals and no riding a manatee around like one of those big blow-up toys that you pull behind a boat. So I paddle around carefully being vigilant not to touch or startle anything, gently swishing my hands to power myself along. I gawk left and right, but I see nothing.
Just when I am starting to feel disappointed and underwhelmed, I get the impression that a huge, dark shadow is materializing to my left. Suddenly I’m face-to-face with a 10 foot one ton sea mammal, and I immediately have a “Jaws” flashback. I set my masked face in a twisted look of horror and certainly would have screamed if not for the snorkel in my mouth – but instead of staring into a gaping mouth and pointed teeth, I instead see a massive sea creature looking quizzically at me. On his pudgy face is the expression of a befuddled puppy. He looks like a zeppelin with whiskers and flippers. I had heard that early explorers like Christopher Columbus thought manatees were mermaids – obviously very frumpy mermaids. I guess that’s what happens when sailors are at sea too long.
No, I’m not physically attracted to these elegant sea cows, but I am fascinated. They take turns swimming up and around me, softly punting me with their oversized noses before gently gliding past and going about their morning routine like I’m not even there. Manatees have no natural predators, and therefore no inherent defense mechanisms. As I don’t look like a garden salad this morning, I feel safe; the manatees seem about as aggressive as couch cushions and almost as soft and cuddly too. I resist the urge to give them a big hug – an act that would lead to some jail time I would think.
The gentle giants spend pretty much all their waking hours eating. That’s 200 pounds of greens, eaten five to eight hours daily to maintain their beautiful rotund shape. Manatees evolved from land mammals (and are related to elephants), and still have small fingernails on their front flippers. They use these flippers to steer and their paddle-like tails to propel themselves up and down, gracefully moving their huge bodies through the water.
After the manatees have tired of our company in Kings Bay, we climb back aboard the boat and venture into Three Sisters Springs, a series of shallow pools that resemble a water park. Here, the water is crystal clear, making it easy to see the hundreds of manatees who inhabit the site. They are coastal dwellers, and can survive in both fresh and salt water, but they can’t pressurize their ears, meaning you’ll never find them down very deep.
They may not have the strength and grace of killer whales, or the agility and good looks of dolphins, but swimming with manatees is a profound experience, one that I think you should add to your bucket list.
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State
Those who prefer to see these creatures of the sea from a comfortable spot on dry land can do that too. The Three Sisters Springs Refuge has a boardwalk that meanders around the pools, and the springs are so clear that it is great for manatee viewing. The Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, a 180-acre preserve about eight miles south of Crystal River, has six resident manatees, some rescued from the wild and some born in captivity. The park, which can be reached by a river boat safari, is beautifully laid out, with lagoons, boardwalks, a waterfall and bridges. Enclosures hold native animals like cougars, Key deer and alligators, and in the waterfowl sanctuary, pink flamingos and hundreds of white ibises, great blue herons, moorhens and other birds screech and honk and generally make you feel like you’re marching through the rainforest. The manatees dwell in a large spring, and the park offers educational manatee programs where you can learn about these impressive sea creatures.
Okay, I admit it’s not really hunting when you are armed only with a camera – but that is how I like it. Alligators, which seem to be everywhere in Florida, are maybe not as gentle and docile as the manatees. You don’t want to go on a “Swimming with the Gators” tour – rather you want to skulk around the alligator’s backwater habitat in a swift and versatile airboat, an extraordinary vehicle that can navigate places where normal watercraft can’t go. There is no engine dragging behind it, so you can race through fields of water hyacinths and under the thick canopy of moss-covered cypress trees. It’s stealthy enough to creep into dense swamps to sneak up on a resting gator, but powered by a massive propeller, it can also fly flat out across wide-open lakes, which is handy in case the alligator decides he wants to eat you.
I strap on the earmuffs to protect myself from the roar of the engine, and brace myself for an outing with Wild Bill’s Airboat Tours into the backwaters of the Withlacoochee River. The Withlacoochee offers about 83 miles of navigable waterway, but that is misleading because air-powered craft can go places where conventional powerboats dare not venture. This iconic Florida river starts off narrow and shallow, ideal for canoeing, but 30 miles downstream the river opens up into wide everglades, and that’s where the airboats rule. In its upper reaches, the Withlacoochee is stained dark from the tannic acid leaching from the surrounding cypress foliage. Downstream the water runs crystal clear in spots because of natural springs underneath. On route we pass through hardwood forest, cypress swamps, pine woods, palmetto scrub brush, freshwater wetlands and salt marsh. On this sunny afternoon, we see many alligators warming themselves on the banks. The bird life is also amazing, with herons, egrets, red-tail hawks, osprey and eagles taking flight at our approach.
At the end of our run is the Wysong Dam. A ramp is built alongside the dam to allow airboats to propel themselves out of the water in some kind of James Bond maneuver, hopefully setting down safely on the other side. Thankfully this is not part of today’s tour so our captain opens it up for a wild ride home. Airboat touring companies were once found mostly around Everglades National Park in the south, but now a plethora of them offer wilderness tours throughout the headwaters of the Everglades system in central Florida.
The Withlacoochee State Trail
I liked the lyrical name “Withlacoochee” so much that I decide on one last adventure, a bike ride along the 46 mile Withlacoochee State Trail. The old rail line trail runs through several quaint towns, the Withlacoochee State Forest and other natural areas. Like all rail trails, the inclines and curves are gradual for easy peddling. In Floral City, I leave the trail to ride through the town, stopping at a clapboard roadside shack called Aunt Martha’s for a bag of her famous boiled peanuts. Old Martha tells the history of the town and how the pioneers in the 1880s planted live oaks along what is now known as the Avenue of Oak. Near the town of Inverness you can ride through Fort Cooper State Park, a site that commemorates the Seminole War. In Inverness you can take a detour along a boardwalk that follows the contours of the cypress-lined shore of a lake. It is an alluring and gentle ride, and not too wild, I am thinking, until I spy a mid-sized gator hiding in the reeds under the high wooden bikeway, perhaps hoping that I take a tumble.
On Florida’s central gulf coast there are countless opportunities to leave the beach and amusement parks behind and delve into the state’s natural beauty and unique adventures – get up close with a gator, or fall in love with a Crystal River mermaid – a shapely, friendly manatee.
Featured Picture: An alligator hides in the reeds during an airboat tour (Jamie Ross)
MORE ABOUT CRYSTAL RIVER AND HOMOSASSA SPRINGS:
Location: 60 miles north of Tampa Bay.
The Plantation on Crystal River www.plantationoncrystalriver.com Rooms from $170 per night.
Crystal Blue Lagoon Bed and Breakfast www.crystalbluelagoonbb.com Rooms from $225 including full breakfast.
Swim with the Manatees with the Plantation Adventure Center www.plantationoncrystalriver.com $65 for three hour tour.
Wild Bill’s Airboat Tours http://www.wildbillsairboattour.com
$45 for one hour trip.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park www.floridastateparks.org/park/Homosassa-Springs
Tickets are $13 adult and $5 for children.
Bike Rentals at Inverness Bicycle and Fitness www.invernessbicycle.com
$25 half day $40 full day
West 82 Bar & Grill at the Plantation of Crystal River www.plantationcrystalriver.com.
Katch Twenty-Two Restaurant www.katchtwentytwo.com for locally sourced seafood.
Motor City Pasta Company in Inverness www.motorcitypastaco.com for gourmet pizza.
Visit Florida www.VisitFlorida.com
Discover Crystal River www.DiscoverCrystalRiverFL.com