Friday, December 14, 2012

Swimming (well, Paddling) With the Manatees

We're at the Crystal Isles Encore Superpark RV Resort in Crystal River, FL. We got here on Dec. 1 and immediately began to wear t-shirts and shorts almost all the time. That's what the weather was like, 60s at night and high 70s/low 80s during the day. It was nice. (Was is the operative word there; the last two days have seen the lows be down at 50 and the highs in the 60s, but that's now. Let's get us up to this point.)

Crystal River is a fascinating area. We didn't know where we were coming other than having seen it on the map, knowing it was in Florida on the Gulf, and that there would be lots of water around, which is what we wanted. But we didn't know what would be IN the water!

Crystal River (city and river) is right in the heart of Manatee country. In fact, we are in an RV Park that is adjacent to a canal that flows into the river and right near King's Bay and the manatees swim out of the Gulf waters as they turn cold and seek out the warmer waters of the bay and the springs that feed the bay. The springs flow at a constant 70-72 degrees and the manatees are looking for the warmth of the water.

Manatees are a large ... VERY LARGE ... marine mammals. One brochure describes them as "over a ton of tenderness." Yes, that's right. Manatees can weigh over a ton, even up to 3,000 lbs! In fact, one of their closest relatives is the elephant. Yet, they are very gentle with no predators other than humans. They may swim with you quite literally since they are not afraid of people and will come up to human swimmers and boats. Many people do swim in the water with these gentle giants. We just paddled around with them in our kayaks.

We took the kayaks one day and just headed out into King's Bay from the Crystal River city park. We were just paddling around for the fun of it. We had heard of the manatees and had been told that some areas were cordoned off as "resting areas" for the manatees. That meant that we should not kayak in those waters. It didn't take long to find some of these areas.

Completely by accident one of the more interesting places we discovered was the area know as the Three Sisters Springs. These are the fresh-water springs (three of them in one area) that feel the Crystal River. They are also warmish water (compared to the Gulf) and therefore are favorite places for the manatee to rest. We got there in the middle of a day and there were no manatee in the spring but there sure were a LOT of fish. The water is perfectly clear. People can snorkel in it and paddle their kayaks and canoes but not fish or scuba dive. Although there were no manatee in the springs, just outside the springs in a protected area were several manatee resting on the bottom. We did see one large one swimming just a few feet from our boats.

One evening we went to the bridge on King's Bay Road and, standing on the bridge, saw at least two dozen manatees swimming in or out of the area. We also lucked out by being in Crystal River on a weekend that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened up access to the area around the Three Sisters Springs and we could actually walk around in an area completely closed to the public and look down into the springs from the land around them. We talked briefly to a representative of the Fish and Wildlife Service about the possibility of being workcampers with them in a future year where we could volunteer three days a week in exchange for a free spot to camp for the whole season. That might be fun but we'll see what comes of that.

One of the first days we were here, we drove out to the end to the road where our resort/campground is located for sunset.  Actually, we drove out there twice for sunset but the first day underestimated the length of time it would take us to get to the end of the road and so missed most of the sundown show. So, we went back the next day just a little earlier and got the full effect of sundown over the Gulf of Mexico. The Fort Island Gulf Beach County Park is out there where the road runs into the water (at a boat launch ramp, of course). It has white sand beaches, a swimming area, lots and lots of birds, and a great view of the setting sun.

On another day, we went to the Crystal River Archaeological State Park. This is home to a pre-Columbian ceremonial mound complex used by Native Americans for religious and social ceremonial purposes. There are six mounds on the site and they are mostly built up from oyster and other shells discarded by the original peoples of the area. The earliest use of the area was some 10,000 years ago but the most significant activity began about 2,500 years ago and lasted up until about 500 years ago. A few days later, we also took a boat tour of the lower portions of the Crystal River that focused on the ecology and historical heritage of the area (hence, it was called the Heritage-Eco boat tour).

In the same area as the archaeological park is the Crystal River Preserve State Park. The area is unique in that it is a spring-fed estuary which leads to a coastline of salt marshes instead of sandy beaches (although those can be found in the area as well). There are lots and lots of birds around here that we don't ordinarily get to see including egrets, great blue herons, pelicans, and others. The locals think that it is great that they get to see some whooping cranes. We think it's great too, and Baraboo, WI, where we lived for six years, is home to the International Crane Foundation which has worked for the preservation and encouragement of these magnificent birds and has pioneered in the use of ultralight aircraft to teach young cranes how to fly to Florida for the winter.

We drove down to the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. There we really got a great glimpse of the manatees. They have an underwater observatory called the Fish Bowl where one can watch fish and manatees in the freshwater spring. In addition, there are educational programs on manatees, alligators, Florida wildlife, and the one hippopotamus that is a permanent resident of the Park. The wildlife park was once a private tourist attraction with many NON-Florida game animals but they have all been removed and relocated since the state took over. All except the hippo which was such a crowd pleaser that a former governor of Florida declared the hippo an honorary citizen of the state so he could remain in the park for the rest of his (LONG) life.

We also visited the city of Inverness (the county seat of Citrus County). The old courthouse there has been turned into an excellent museum with displays about the area and its history. We also visited Fort Morgan State Park which was the site of a major standoff with the Seminole Indians during the Second Seminole War. No fort remains. It was made of wood stakes which long ago deterioriated, but there was a good trail for taking a walk in the woods, seeing the Old Military Road (there seems to be one of them in almost every state we visit), and just enjoying a beautiful day.

Everything in our life is not let's go see something new every day. Sometimes we have to stop having fun to do such things as the laundry, washing dishes, and buying groceries. We are accumulating quite the stack of grocery store savings cards since we ask for one wherever we go (if we don't already have one).

We are at about mid-point in our month in Crystal River and shortly will take a brief hiatus from being snowbirds. We'll fly back to WI to see some friends and our kids/grandkids and especially to meet our newest (and first) granddaughter, Zamaya, born to daughter Karla and her friend, Jonah, just this week. We'll then return to Florida and Crystal River for a few days before it's time to move on to our next adventure at Cedar Key (which is just a little bit north of Crystal River). We hope that all of you have a Merry and a Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year!

1 comment:

Fred O'Bryant said...

Forrest and Mary, I'm just now getting around to "catching up" on your posts and travels. Peg and I are fans of manatees and I enjoyed your comments and photos. Am looking forward to more of your tales and to a trip to Florida again someday myself! -- Fred