Manatees deserve a separate discussion, not only because of their overwhelming importance for tourism and the economy of Citrus County, but for the possibility of yaker interactions with them that may result in unwanted outcomes. They attract tens of thousands of visitors annually to the Crystal River – Homosassa area, including many from other countries, especially during the winter months when hundreds congregate, sometimes shoulder to shoulder, to keep warm in the constant 72 degree spring water found here. Areas have been created providing for up-close viewing of these animals, and, unlike any other place I’m aware of, swimming among them is permitted. They elicit a broad range of sentiment among county residents from those who think that looking cross-eyed at one can change its behavior forever, to those who swear under their breath at them for causing them to reduce speed on their weekend boating outings, for bringing all these people into their once peaceful community, and for their non-stop deposits into our waters already burdened by high nutrient loads.
Be aware that this is an endangered species protected by difficult to interpret and enforce rules regarding harassment. For instance, you’re not supposed to chase them, but I have no problem maneuvering around them to keep them in sight for a period of time. You’re not supposed to reach out for them, but if one happens to come up to your yak, pokes his nose on it and gives you a loving look, I have no problem patting it on the head before sending him off for the day. By all means, if you happen to run across manatees (not literally, of course) while paddling around, try not to come between a mother and her calf. The couple of times I did, I witnessed mom transform from her normal docile self into her best imitation of Shamu, soaking me in the process. Also, while highly unlikely, I suppose it’s possible that one could surface under your yak resulting in an unwanted dunking. The application of a bit of common sense should serve you well.
For those wishing to view manatees from the land, head to the Three Sisters Spring viewing area off of Kings Bay in Crystal River and / or the Ellie Schiller State Wildlife Park in Homosassa Springs. In addition, many dive shops and marinas in the area offer manatee tours and cater to the needs of snorkelers and divers. An annual manatee festival is held in Crystal River in January.
The Three Sisters area is part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, and is in the process of being improved to provide a better manatee viewing experience for the visiting public. A new boardwalk around the springs has been completed and a welcome center and parking area are in the planning / development stage. At the present time, public access to the spring is via a contracted bus operation. Further information about manatees and visitor access can be accessed at www.fws.gov/refuge/crystal_river/.
The wildlife park is a popular attraction and features a variety of wildlife including manatees, alligators and the endangered whooping crane and Florida Panther. A variety of fish (normally including some big snook) can be viewed from an underwater observatory, and a wildlife encounter program offers interactions with a variety of wildlife. Manatee feeding programs are scheduled and a manatee treatment facility is available to treat various ailments. Many injured birds and other wildlife are brought to the park for treatment and care. Additional information about this and other Florida State Parks can be accessed at www.floridastateparks.org.
Copyright © Gary Rankel