One of the greatest paddling experiences on the Florida Rivers is a Manatee encounter of the close kind. These aquatic mammals, also known as Sea Cows, are protected by Federal Law. They were almost hunted into extinction in the late 1800's. Today, specific waterways have been set aside as sanctuaries to protect these peaceful creatures in their migratory search for warm and safe waters. Sadly most bear the price of an encroaching civilization.
The Manatee can be found in the coastal waters of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina during the summer months. During the winter, they migrate to Florida's inland waterways. The official "season" for the Florida Manatee is from October 31st to March 31st. Sea Cows are herbivores and can be found in shallow, slow-moving waters where vegetation flourishes. On average they weigh around a thousand pounds and measure about 10-feet long. They must surface to breathe air, usually every thirty seconds, but they have been known to stay submerged as long as 20 minutes. Although they move at a slow, leisurely pace, they can swim up to 20 miles an hour in short bursts.
Crystal River, located on Central Florida's west coast, is one of the sanctuaries that plays host to as many as five hundred Manatees in the winter months. It's formed by 30 springs in and around Kings Bay at the Town of Crystal River. Many of the estuaries have been turned into canals surrounded by affluent neighborhoods.
A large tourist industry has emerged around this "siren" of the sea, as folks are eager to discover and interact with this unusual creature. Dive boats steer carefully through the waterways giving everyone an opportunity to enjoy these magnificent mammals in their habitat. Paddling in a kayak or a canoe, and following along the lumbering sea creatures, is also a most fulfilling and rewarding experience. It provides the opportunity to really commune with the Manatees in a more relaxed environment.
If you have your own boat, the best place to put in is - Hunter Spring Park. It's located at the end of Citrus Avenue off of Hwy 19-98. Once in the water, you'll trek west on a canal past Pete's Pier Marina, which opens up to Kings Bay. This is the first opportunity to see signs of wildlife, as ospreys and owls perch on trees and pelicans congregate on a lone sandbar. If you trek along the left bank of the bay, you'll come upon a two lane bridge that you'll want to cross under. This is the point where you have the best chance for a Manatee encounter. However, the boat traffic here is at its peak.
The shallow canal system is the favorite gathering spot for the Crystal River Manatees. Flanked by luxurious homes, most eyes are focused on the water for a glimpse of a slow moving shadow. Multiple springs in the canal system produce crystal clear water making it easy to spot the elusive creatures. They're not aggressive and surface regularly for a breath of air providing a chance for a close encounter.
The biggest concentration of Sea Cows can be found at Manatee Manor. This is where having a kayak or canoe is an advantage. The portal is a narrow passageway that only a kayak or canoe can negotiate. It takes some work navigating a boat through the small tributary full of Cypress "knee's", and rocks, but it's worth the experience as it opens up to reveal the "Three Sisters Springs". This beautiful sanctuary is formed by turquoise water and white sands. The three separate springs average about 20 feet deep. They're nestled in a cove of trees providing an escape from the nearby housing developments. This is the best place to snorkel and watch the Manatees in their natural habitat, meandering from plant to plant without a care to the world.
The biggest threat to this unusual sea creature is man and motorboat propellers which cause huge gashes in their backs. Vigilance by wildlife conservationist help protect the endangered Manatee but we all need to be good stewards of our environmental heritage so that it can by enjoyed be generations to come.
Go to the following links for more information on Manatees: