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Photo Americana: The Manatees of Crystal River

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Let's continue with the adventures of the Lynnhaven Dive Center in Florida. It is early Sunday morning on Valentine's Day, February 14 in the small city of Crystal River in Citrus County, Florida near the Gulf Coast and adjacent to King's Bay. Crystal City considers itself the "Home of the Manatee", and shares the same name as the river it borders. Crystal River itself includes the King's Bay National Wildlife Refuge, acre after acre of balmy 72 degree F. spring-fed water year round.

We were roused out of bed at 5:15 so that we could have ourselves and our snorkeling gear loaded onto the bus by 6:00 AM for the very short trip to Bird's Underwater Manatee Tours. From there we would load, after a short wait, onto two pontoon boats that would slowly cruise to the nearby manatee sanctuary, where scores of Florida manatees, a subspecies of the West Indian Manatee, were relaxing, feeding or sleeping.

SCUBA Diving is frowned upon near the sanctuary because a plethora of scary-looking divers and their gear can stress and frighten manatees, as well as create logistical nightmares, so only snorkeling and free diving are allowed by the tour company.

So we loaded onto the first two boats of the day as dawn was breaking with still heavy mist and fog on the river and shorelines, setting off on about a fifteen minute trip down Crystal River. We already had our wetsuits on to expedite things and sat in the semi-dark bantering and joking amongst ourselves as the boat sauntered along, until finally we could dimly make out, through the fog, the bright orange buoys with nylon lines running between them that demarcated the boundaries of the sanctuary.

We dropped anchor nearby and it didn't take long to jump into the ten to fifteen foot deep, bluish-green water and slowly begin searching for the fascinating manatee, fascinating because, believe it or not, they are closely related to elephants yet are completely aquatic creatures, are incredibly peaceful and friendly, are herbivores who spend hours a day eating marine vegetation and have forelimb flippers that they can use almost like arms, to mention a few characteristics.

We had only swum a hundred feet or so before we had run into some of them as they slowly and consistently meander in and out of the forbidden-to-us sanctuary areas on into the allotted swimmers' area, when they aren't resting or nibbling at plants on the bottom. Within minutes I was already swimming astride of one, trying to take pictures. The hardest chore for me as I progressed through the herd was to avoid willy-nilly running into them while aiming my camera, which can spook them, although they enjoy being petted properly, on the back or sides, and will even roll over for you when you stroke them just right. They have tough, algae-covered skin, but they are sensitive enough to one's touch to behave like your pet dog with the right vibrations.

So I and others spent a good hour floundering around with these ten foot long average mammals in the warm yet sediment-filled river water, with murky visibility of perhaps fifteen to twenty feet that prevented me from getting some of the distance shots I wanted, but I did get some good close-ups.

When we looked around and about us on the surface after that first hour or so, we suddenly saw a phalanx of youthful swimmers in blue and black wet suits and scuba masks with snorkels headed our way and soon found that our hitherto privileged manatee environment had become a watery Grand Central Station, so, one after another, we slowly beat our retreat.

There were perhaps a half dozen pontoon boats anchored nearby too now. Most of the mist and fog had lifted, the sun was shining and the air temperature rising. Eventually we had all clamored back aboard and begun the short journey back, talking fervently about our experiences, some of us quite ecstatic with our close encounters of the manatee kind.

Now let's go swimming:

A misty morning on the Crystal River as we approach the sanctuary buoys:

The other dive boat in our entourage, just anchored:

Into the river:


The tail of the first manatee I spot:


A baby manatee apparently nursing:



The manatee's forelimb flipper. The females teats for nursing are under them:


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