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Crystal River, Florida calls itself the Home of the Manatee. This small town, located on the west coast of Florida alongside the Gulf of Mexico, is unique in that it’s the only place in the United States where one is allowed to swim alongside these friendly and gentle giants, who are harmless and lack any system of defense. Federal and state laws attempt to provide manatees with as much protection as possible.
Other than in Crystal River, law enforcement considers that for a person even to approach a manatee is illegal harassment. The typical manatee is about 9 feet long and weighs 1000 pounds but, despite its size, it’s an endangered species and deaths from boat strikes are frequent.
Manatees share a common ancestor with the elephant. Without additional protection, the Florida manatee faces extinction. Many manatees bear multiple scars from their encounters with boat propellers. At least Floridians are aware of this and many of their cars carry “Save the Manatee” license plates, the sale proceeds from which help to fund protection measures.
Manatees are herbivores, which mean that they eat only plants, which makes them vegetarians. They usually eat up to 10% of their body weight every day. The delights of lobster and crab and shrimp are not for them, presumably because removing the shells would be too much trouble. Any attempt by the public to feed manatees is strictly forbidden. How long does a manatee live? Who knows, but a manatee called Snooty was born in Miami in 1948. He now lives at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida, a few miles to the south of Crystal River.
Like Pat and me, the manatee spends most of its time eating, resting and in travel. Like Pat and me also, it needs to swim in warm water. Prolonged exposure to water temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit leads to its death and that sad fact brings us back to the little town of Crystal River. In winter, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico can become surprisingly cool – except in Crystal River. The town spreads itself around picturesque Kings Bay, which is fed by 50 springs keeping water in the bay at a year round temperature of at least 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Consequently, Kings Bay is home to over 400 manatees during winter.
Florida welcomes many visitors from Canada and the northern part of the United States during the winter months. We call them “snowbirds from up north”, who are wise enough to avoid the cold weather. The manatees in Kings Bay during winter are similarly motivated and are intelligent. Manatees are curious and possess a long term memory, which must be useful when the waters of the Gulf start to cool. Oddly enough, they don’t much care whether they are swimming in freshwater or sea water. They also talk to each other by making a wide range of sounds. They hear well, despite the absence of ear lobes, and can differentiate colors.
On September 12th 2013, Pat and I celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary by visiting Crystal River. We were accompanied by our daughter Tara. I would love to be able to tell you that, after donning our snorkels and masks, we plunged into the depths of Kings Bay, introduced ourselves to several talkative manatees and swam alongside them. Yet that would be a lie.
On arriving in town, we located Crackers Bar and Grill on the edge of Kings Bay and indulged in a substantial lunch, the soporific effect of which deterred us from even entering the water later.While comfortably reclining on the deck of the restaurant, we gazed at the waters of the bay, expecting a large mammal to break the surface and present itself to us for inspection. It didn’t happen. We never saw a real live manatee all day. However, it must not be said that we have let down the thousands of readers of this website who are eager to see what a manatee looks like.
Before leaving town, we visited the headquarters of The Crystal River National Wild Life Refuge which is operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. There we met and were photographed with a life sized statue of a manatee and her calf.
When we next visited our favorite bar in Lake County, Florida, about 50 miles to the east of Crystal River, it was much busier than usual. Snowbirds from up north had been arriving. Like the manatees, they were intelligent and talkative. The pleasure of their company compensated us for our failure in Crystal River to meet a real live manatee.