Hi gang, Rick here again at Used Pontoon Boats. Snorkeling in the shallow, gray-green water off Banana Island is, frankly, a bit spooky. The winds of a passing cold front have stirred up Kings Bay, and swimming through suspended silt is like flying through fog. Snook and mullet and Lord-knows-what are little more than silver wiggles in the green gloom.
A dive mask narrows my field of vision so that I don't know what's out there until it's dead ahead. A yardstick away. Floating still, I cock my head to scan left and stare into a tiny obsidian eye. The eye is set in a small head attached to a huge gray body. I've been searching for manatees, and a manatee has found me.
Manatees have been coming to this part of Florida longer than New Yorkers. Both come for the same reason: to find a warm spot to survive the winter. Despite their bulk — the typical adult weighs more than half a ton — manatees fall victim to hypothermia when water temperatures fall below 68 degrees. The waters of the nearby Gulf of Mexico chill to 58 degrees or so in the winter, driving hundreds to Kings Bay and the Crystal River where more than 30 springs pump out 72-degree water year-round. The federal government established the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in 1983 to protect the manatees' winter haven.
The hundreds of visiting manatees draw thousands of visiting humans. No more than six of them each day board the Captain Mike's Ultimate Manatee Tour, one of a handful of tour boats that cruise the refuge. And those six passengers are the warmest people on the water.
Other tour boats anchored at the springs are pontoons with only taut vinyl curtains to protect passengers from wind and cold. A few don't have that. Our boat is a hard-sided houseboat equipped with a propane heater and a head, the nautical term for restroom. That latter amenity alone earns the tour the ultimate tag. It's a six-hour trip, and the package includes all the hot coffee you need to keep your innards warm. Or you can choose hot chocolate or bottled water to wash down doughnuts, bagels and other snacks.
Everyone onboard begins fueling up as tour captain Doreen Fender eases away from the dock. Every trip begins with viewing a video on the etiquette of swimming with manatees. The practice has some critics, who believe troops of tourists splashing about in wet suits stress the massive mammals. The rules are pretty simple: The manatee initiates contact. You don't chase down a manatee or corner it. You don't do anything that might separate a calf from its mother. You don't feed the manatees. And, most sternly stressed, you don't cross the floating markers that define a manatees-only sanctuary.
That means that while you're certain to see a manatee December through March, it's less certain you'll get close enough to touch one, to gaze into its tiny obsidian eye.
The odds are with us this January morning. A manatee casually approaches the boat as Fender sets anchor at King Springs off Banana Island. I zip up my wet suit and slide into the water and kick toward Banana Island, to the spot where I'm ambushed, delightfully so, by a manatee.
When I tentatively reach out to touch the 8-foot sea cow, it edges closer and I begin petting its hide, a mottled mix of leathery gray skin, slick green algae and bumpy barnacles. Slowly it rolls onto its side to expose an expansive pale belly as if to say, "Rub my tummy."
And I oblige.
The manatee matches my movements to accommodate several minutes of back-scratching and belly rubbing. At times it brings its whiskered mug within a couple of inches of my face mask.
I feel an ever so slight bump on my right shoulder and I spin to see a yearling about 5 feet long. I'm sandwiched between mother and child.
After a few more minutes of scratching and rubbing, first one and then the other, the two swim off and disappear like gray-green ghosts. The manatees are even friendlier later that morning at Three Sisters Springs where the water is Dasani clear. While at least 15 manatees rest still as stones on the boulders within the marked no-humans zone, a dozen others swim slowly among the snorklers seeking, apparently, a belly rub.
One calf takes to grabbing with its front flippers the arms and legs of members of the Roddick-Ament family, here from northern Alberta as part of a four-week sunshine tour.
"It's a bit disconcerting when the flippers wrap around you," says Tye Roddick-Ament, laughing while toweling off in the warm boat cabin. "It's a bit of role reversal — 'Let's go pet the humans.' "
IF YOU GO
• Getting there: Crystal River is a seven-hour drive from Atlanta, taking I-75 South to Gainesville, Fla., and Fla. 121. Take 121 South to U.S. 19 South to Crystal River.
• Where to stay: Best Western Crystal River Resort, 614 N.W. U.S. 19, 352-795-3171, http://www.crystalriverresort.com/. Sitting by the docks of the bay, this motel is the most convenient lodging for manatee watchers. You can sleep until 7:30 a.m. and still walk over to the dock for the 7:45 a.m. tour check-in time. There is also a pool, dive shop, gift shop and tiki bar with a nice view of Kings Bay.
Day's Inn, 2380 N.W. U.S. 19, 352-795-2111. About two miles north of docks, across from Crystal River Mall.
Comfort Inn, 4486 N. Suncoast Blvd., 352-563-1500. Off the main drag of U.S. 19, also near the mall.
• Information: http://www.visitcitrus.com/
You have a good chance of getting a good look at a manatee without getting wet just a few miles down the road from Crystal River at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. You can also get a look at a hippopotamus, a living legacy of the park's history.
The site on the Homosassa River was developed as a roadside tourist attraction, part nature preserve and part zoo. That is where Lu the hippo comes in. The park is still part zoo, featuring panthers, otters, black bears, alligators and other wildlife native to Florida. Except for Lu, of course.
An underwater observatory near a spring provides views of snook, sheephead, crevalle jack and, if you're lucky, manatees. You're almost sure to see manatees during one of the three educational programs. It seems they can't resist cabbage and carrots.
Lu, by the way, turns 48 on Jan. 25.
• Getting there: Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is located in Homosassa Springs on U.S. 19, about nine miles south of Crystal River.
• Hours: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily
• Admission: $9 adults; $5 children ages 3-12; free for children under 3
• Information: 352-628-5343, http://www.homosassa%20springs.org/
Thanks to Clint Williams, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for this.
Used Pontoon Boats, By Rick Ostler
Used Pontoon Boats-North American Waterway
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