But there's still plenty to be smitten with in these docile, aquatic mammals that are perhaps most accurately described as a cross between a seal and a cow. And smitten we all are on this chilly December morning in Citrus County, Fla., the self-proclaimed "manatee capital of the world" - me and the five other "swim with the manatees" tour participants from Crystal Lodge Dive Center and the dozen or so others who have booked their tour from other local operators.
Our (very) up-close and personal encounter had begun shortly after dawn with the six of us struggling to get our own somewhat Rubenesque bodies into neoprene wetsuits. A 20-minute video had then introduced us to the endangered species, and explained the dos and don'ts of swimming with them. (A ranger in a kayak would be making sure we didn't violate any of the rules.)
Equipped and informed, we board Capt. Darren's pontoon boat for the colorfully narrated 20-minute ride out into Kings Bay. Our destination: the gaping underwater mouth of Kings Spring, a 72-degree natural Jacuzzi where manatees, which despite their abundance of fat have very little tolerance for cold, congregate overnight during the winter months.
Capt. Darren moors well away from both the other boats and the designated encounter area, a roped-off keyhole of dark water abutting the Crystal River Preserve State Park, and instructs us to don our masks, fins, and snorkels and jump in. We do, though there is clearly a little hesitation about making our way over to where a small, disorganized flotilla of rubber-coated backsides and half-submerged snorkels indicates that our objective awaits.
Whatever trepidation we may have had, however, is quickly dispelled. Despite their formidable size (a full-grown female can weigh almost two tons), these lethargic vegetarians are completely harmless. Moreover, they seem completely unfazed by our presence as they move effortlessly about in the warm, murky water.
For the next 90 minutes, it's just man and manatee, intermingling freely and haphazardly. It's hard to discern exactly how many individuals are in this particular herd, but the consensus guess afterward is 30 to 40, including six several-hundred-pound "babies." So close and so frequently do we come across each other that none of us can resist reaching out and touching them - be it stroking their arched and occasionally barnacled backs, shaking their mittlike flippers, or even caressing their rough cheeks.
As our group of six had been the last to arrive, so, too, are we the last to leave, albeit reluctantly. Ironically, it is on my way back to the boat that I am destined to have my single best encounter. Not expecting to see any more, I nearly collide with a particularly full-figured female who promptly rolls over, inviting me to scratch her belly. For several minutes, I gladly oblige. Another Daryl Hannah she isn't. But that won't stop me from remembering our magical moments together with fondness for years to come.
Tête-à-Tête With Manatees
Where to go
Citrus County (80 miles north of Tampa, 85 miles northwest of Orlando) boasts the largest population of manatees in the United States, thanks to an abundance of warm-water springs. The two primary encounter areas are Kings Bay (adjacent to the town of Crystal River) and the Homosassa River.
But manatees can also be seen - and swum with - elsewhere in the state, particularly in the Fort Myers and Naples areas.
When to go
The best time to swim with manatees is November to March, when herds congregate around warm-water springs. And the best time to go is early in the morning, before the herd disperses to feed.
Crystal Lodge Dive Center, 525 NW Seventh Ave., Crystal River, Fla. 34428; 352-795-6798, manatee-central.com; Tour $25; equipment rental $17.
Birds Underwater Dive Center; 320 NW Highway 19, Crystal River, Fla. 34428; 800-771-2763, birdsunderwater.com; Tour $45 (includes equipment rental)
Captain Mike's Sunshine River Tours; 1 Southwest First Place, Crystal River, Fla. 34429; 352-628-3450, sunshinerivertours.com; three-hour tour $40 (includes equipment rental); six-hour tour, $99
River Safaris, 10823 W. Yulee Dr., Homosassa, Fla. 34448; 352-628-5222, riversafaris.com. Tour $40 (includes equipment rental)
Other manatee viewing options
For those reluctant to get in the water with these lumbering giants, there's an underwater observatory at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (4150 S. Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa, Fla. 34446; 352-628-5343, www.floridastateparks.org/homosassasprings; admission: $13 adults, $5 ages 6-12).
Or you can rent a kayak, canoe, or pontoon boat at any number of waterfront liveries and search for manatees yourself.
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