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