Ex­plorer

Sea cows can also be cash cows on Florida’s Gulf Coast

RSWLiving - - Departments - WRIT­TEN BY J OS­HUA KINSER

Mad for Man­a­tees

For many tourists to Florida’s Gulf Coast, no visit is com­plete without spot­ting a man­a­tee or two. And that means that there are plenty of peo­ple will­ing to pay big bucks for the chance to kayak, swim, dive, and snorkel along­side them.

Ac­cord­ing to Robert Bonde, a re­search sci­en­tist with the US Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey who has stud­ied man­a­tees for more than thir­ty­five years and the au­thor of The Florida Man­a­tee: Bi­ol­ogy and Con­ser­va­tion, tourism could ac­tu­ally be sav­ing these en­dan­gered her­bi­vores. “Eco­tourism has re­placed sub- sis­tence hunt­ing [ by hu­mans in the past], al­low­ing the man­a­tee pop­u­la­tions to sur­vive in ar­eas where their pro­tec­tion is en­forced,” he says.

There are plenty of places on Florida’s Gulf Coast where man­a­tees can feel the love from peo­ple look­ing to view and even in­ter­act with them. These gen­tle aquatic mam­mals gather around the state’s fresh­wa­ter springs, with the largest con­cen­tra­tions of man­a­tees oc­cur­ring be­tween Novem­ber and March.

Why? Man­a­tees rarely ven­ture into wa­ter that is be­low sixty- eight de­grees. Dur­ing the winter, the warmer wa­ter can be found around Florida’s spring­heads and power plants.

Many man­a­tees mi­grate to the north and travel as far as the Carolina coast dur­ing the sum­mer. Some head to Louisiana to the west, and man­a­tees have even been recorded as far north as New York. But some re­main here in the Florida sun no mat­ter the month on the cal­en­dar, vis­it­ing the warm wa­ters of the springs through­out the year.

Lo­cated in Cit­rus County just north of Ho­mosassa, the Crys­tal River Wilder­ness Pre­serve was cre­ated specif­i­cally to pre-

THERE ARE PLENTY OF PLACES ON FLORIDA’S GULF COAST WHERE MAN­A­TEES CAN FEEL THE LOVE FROM PEO­PLE LOOK­ING TO VIEW AND EVEN IN­TER­ACT WITH THEM.

serve man­a­tee habi­tat in King’s Bay at the head­wa­ters of the Crys­tal River. As a re­sult, it has be­come one of the most vis­ited places on Florida’s Gulf Coast by peo­ple in­ter­ested in view­ing man­a­tees.

Ac­cord­ing to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion, there were 114,767 man­a­tee- en­counter tours through­out Cit­rus County dur­ing 2012. “Man­a­tees bring ap­prox­i­mately $ 20 to $ 30 mil­lion each year into Cit­rus County, mak­ing man­a­tees one of the most re­li­able and sus­tain­able eco­nomic re­sources for the county,” says Jeff In­gle­hart, spe­cial events co­or­di­na­tor for the Cit­rus County Cham­ber of Com­merce.

If you’re in down­town Crys­tal River around mid- Jan­uary, help the city cel­e­brate sea cows at the Florida Man­a­tee Fes­ti­val. For guided kayak tours or kayak ren­tals through­out the year in Crys­tal River, con­tact Matt Cle­mons of Aard­vark’s Florida Kayak Com­pany. “Man­a­tees have a huge eco­nomic im­pact on Cit­rus County,” says Cle­mons. “But from a per­sonal per­spec­tive, where man­a­tee pop­u­la­tions are healthy, so is the rest of the en­vi­ron­ment.”

Man­a­tees love to visit Fan­ning Springs State Park through­out the year, lo­cated along the Suwan­nee River. You can kayak to the park from the Suwan­nee; pad­dlers of­ten start or end trips down the river here.

Or you can drive your car into the park and view the springs. A board­walk trav­els around the perime­ter of the springs, giv­ing visi­tors an in­cred­i­ble op­por­tu­nity for up­close man­a­tee view­ing. Suwan­nee Guides and Out­fit­ter rents kayaks and of­fers man­a­tee- view­ing tours on the river.

Just a few miles down the Suwan­nee from Fan­ning Springs is Man­a­tee Springs State Park in Chiefland. A short, paved path leads from the park­ing area to a set

of wooden steps that de­scends into the springs, where visi­tors can of­ten swim, snorkel, and dive be­side man­a­tees ( without hav­ing to go through a tour com­pany or op­er­a­tor).

For the more ad­ven­tur­ous, open- wa­ter cave- div­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties are avail­able for cer­ti­fied divers at the park. Con­tact Amer­i­can Pro Div­ing Cen­ter for a guided dive of the springs; the com­pany also of­fers snor­kel­ing trips and div­ing tours at other springs in the area.

There are many springs sites at which to view man­a­tees along the Chas­sa­how­itzka and Ho­mosassa Rivers lo­cated just south of Cedar Key. The best bet is to visit the El­lie Schiller Ho­mosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, where you can view man­a­tees all year long at its un­der­wa­ter ob­ser­va­tory.

For the op­por­tu­nity to swim with man­a­tees, take an air­boat or pon­toon boat ride through River Sa­faris in Ho­mosassa. River Sa­faris led more than seven hun­dred peo­ple on tours of the Ho­mosassa River last year, and trips are of­fered through­out the year. “The pos­i­tive im­pact— be­sides the tourism dol­lars brought in— is the abil­ity to take peo­ple out and in­tro­duce them to an en­dan­gered wild an­i­mal,” says Ali­cia Lowe, owner of River Sa­faris. “And ex­plain to them the im­por­tance of im­prov­ing our aquatic en­vi­ron­ment.”

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is fa­mous for its im­pres­sive mer­maid shows. But it’s also a great place to swim with man-

THE MAN­A­TEES ARE VALU­ABLE TO US STRICTLY FROM AN EN­VI­RON­MEN­TAL AS­PECT. KEEP­ING OUR SPRINGS HEALTHY AND SAFE FOR THE MAN­A­TEES IS OF UT­MOST IM­POR­TANCE TO US.”

WHERE MAN­A­TEE POP­U­LA­TIONS ARE HEALTHY, SO IS THE REST OF THE EN­VI­RON­MENT.”

atees. Bring your snorkel gear ( and maybe a wet suit) and head into the fresh­wa­ter springs. Man­a­tees visit through­out the year, but your best chances of see­ing them will be from Novem­ber through March. No need for a guide on this trip: just walk to the beach and get in the wa­ter.

“The man­a­tees are valu­able to us strictly from an en­vi­ron­men­tal as­pect,” says John Athanason, pub­lic re­la­tions di­rec­tor for the park. “Keep­ing our springs healthy and safe for the man­a­tees is of ut­most im­por­tance to us.”

Swim­ming with man­a­tees is a fas­ci­nat­ing and in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence, but it’s vi­tal to re­spect these aquatic crea­tures at all times. Be­fore em­bark­ing on a man­a­tee ad­ven­ture, check the rules and reg­ula- tions at the park you are vis­it­ing.

It is never rec­om­mended that peo­ple swim up to a man­a­tee and touch it. How­ever, there is usu­ally lit­tle need to swim to them at all. Once you are in the wa­ter, a man­a­tee’s cu­rios­ity usu­ally takes over and it swims up to you. It is in that mo­ment when you come faceto- face with one of these an­cient mam­mals that you un­der­stand just why they are the driv­ing but gen­tle force be­hind an eco­tourism in­dus­try that brings tens of mil­lions of dol­lars to the Florida coast. Joshua Kinser is a writer and­mu­si­cian based out of Chim­ney Rock, North Carolina. He is the au­thor of Florida Gulf Coast ( third edi­tion), a guide­book pub­lished by Moon Hand­books.

It's not hard to un­der­stand why visi­tors to Florida— and even lo­cal res­i­dents— love spot­ting man­a­tees in the state’s wa­ter­ways. |

A kayaker en­joys a man­a­tee close en­counter dur­ing a guided tour with Aard­vark’s Florida Kayak Com­pany.

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is fa­mous for its mer­maids, but it’s also a place where man­a­tees like to con­gre­gate ( left and right pho­tos).

Man­a­tees visit Weeki Wachee through­out the year, but the best chances of spot­ting one oc­cur be­tween Novem­ber and March.

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