Crystal River, Florida (less than one hour north of Tampa) is one of the only places in the U.S. where it is legal to swim alongside West Indian Manatees.  These gentle giants are endangered and are subject of great protection by the U.S. Government; anyone found to be harassing, maiming, or hunting the animals can face very stiff federal penalties.  Because they have populated areas where their only natural predators do not frequent (brackish shallow waters), they are endangered almost solely due to human activity—our housing and urban development destroys their habitats, our factories pollute their water, people hunt them in Latin America, and boats hit them as they float and sleep along the surface of the water.  It’s not hard to see why Jimmy Buffet led a massive call for attention to conservation efforts to preserve their species.

They are called Sea Cows for good reason; they are huge, slow, mostly herbivores (they might eat some small fish every now and then), are not territorial, and pose no threat whatsoever to other animals.  The average adult manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs between 800 and 1,200 pounds, but the larger ones can reach up to 13 feet in length.  Sadly, because they are slow and big, and their grey color blends in with the muddy waters of the rivers they live in, they are often killed or maimed by motor boats that speed along when the drivers are ignorant or uncaring to the animals that live in the river.  I saw several with giant scars on their backs caused by motor boat propellers.

They prefer warm water, as cold water causes them hypothermia and death.  This is why in winter months they migrate to the warm waters of the Northeastern portion of the Gulf of Mexico and are easily found in the brackish rivers of Crystal River, Florida.  When swimming with the animals, you have to approach cautiously in order to not scare them and cause them emotional distress.  You float in the water just about 2-3 feet from them as a passive observer, and if they are comfortable with you they may swim right up to you, nudge you, and maybe even roll around and do somersaults for your entertainment.  I was able to enjoy this experience by booking a tour with River Ventures, whose friendly and personable boat captain took me to the spring-fed waters at Kings Bay Wildlife Refuge.  Kings Bay is fed by an underground spring, which produced crystal clear and bright blue water rather than the muddy brown water in the channels that led us to the spring.  I highly recommend River Ventures, as they are environmentally and eco-conscious and they are very diligent at ensuring the guests do not cause disruption to the manatees’ peaceful lives in their natural habitat.  You can find them at http://www.riverventures.com.

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