A Face-to-Face Encounter with Pseudo-Mythical Creatures
Gentle and endearingly playful, with puppy-dog faces attached to 2,000- pound potato-sack bodies that only their mothers could love, manatees (a.k.a. West Indian sea cows or Sirenia, “sirens”) were often mistaken for mermaids by ancient sailors—who presumably liked their mermaids plus-plus Rubenesque. Graceful and wonderfully charismatic, they’re known to nudge and nuzzle their snorkeling visitors, and in recent decades have become a major cause célèbre, with their status on the critically endangered list focusing worldwide attention on them as never before.
The U.S. population of some 3,000 manatees lives almost exclusively in the warm-water bays, estuaries, and rivers of Florida’s eastern and western coasts, wintering particularly in Citrus County, in the west-central part of the state. This is the only place in the world where you can have a face-to-face encounter with these gray-blue marine mammals. A number of outfitters in the small city of Crystal River equip visitors with snorkeling equipment (scuba diving is not permitted, nor is it necessary in these shallow waters) and provide a boat trip to nearby Kings Bay, where 100 to 250 of the area’s population of about 400 tend to be on hand.
Federal laws prohibit certain behavior: snorkelers cannot pursue the animals, for instance, but must wait for the manatees to approach on their own—which they almost always do.