County, Florida’s Natural Choice
R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
is a quiet place, midway up
's west coast. The area offers
outdoor recreational opportunities for the entire family.
Maybe you haven't heard about the area, but the manatees have.
From a manatee's perspective, it is the place to spend the winter.
Manatees are large aquatic animals--harmless, gentle giants.
West Indian manatees (the species found in
) may reach a length of 13 feet and weigh up to 3,000 pounds.
The more common adult size is about 10 feet in length and weighing 1,000
to 1,800 pounds.
supports the bulk of the
manatee population, with as many as 2,000 of them in the state.
has a long history of protecting the animals, passing the first laws of
protection in the 1890's.
Their great size, and the fact that they feed on aquatic vegetation,
probably explains why they are often referred to as "sea cows."
Their thick gray-brown skin reminds one more of an elephant than a cow,
however. Manatees have no natural
enemies and therefore have no defensive mechanism, other than to swim away from
a danger. They present a threat to
Manatees are equally at home in fresh or salt water, but seldom found in
water deeper than 20 feet. Air-breathing
mammals, they surface frequently for air, breaking the water's surface only with
their snouts. Sleeping manatees may
remain submerged for long periods (nearly an hour, we were informed by an
). Warm-blooded creatures, they are
very sensitive to sudden temperature changes and to cold water, which explains
is so popular with the manatees. Here
the natural springs that feed the rivers are a constant 72 degrees, presenting
ideal conditions for the manatees. The
manatees depend on these warm springs for their survival.
During warm weather, manatees venture as far north as
and as far west as
. When temperatures drop, the
spring-fed, warm waters of
's Homosassa and Crystal Rivers (both of which empty into the
Gulf of Mexico
) provide natural sanctuaries for the placid animals.
probably presents the best location to observe manatees in their natural
habitat. November to March is the
prime time for sighting them. As
many as 300 manatees gather in the
each winter. They may be seen year
round, but these months represent the prime viewing season due to cooler waters
elsewhere. Visibility in the area
waters is incredible, often 100 feet or greater.
The best way to observe manatees is to get right in the water with them,
using either diving or snorkeling equipment.
If children are able to snorkel, they may join in the fun.
Few things delight a child as much as giving a back scratch or belly-rub
to one of these friendly creatures. The
county has an abundance of dive shops offering equipment rental and
manatee-viewing excursions. These
great beasts actually seem to enjoy the company of humans.
The best time to go is early in the morning before too many people enter
the water and stir up the sediment. When
entering the water, do not splash or make any loud noises.
Manatees have an aversion to both. Under
the US Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to chase or harass the manatees,
and there is no need to chase them. After
a few minutes in the water, they will approach the snorkelers or divers,
expecting a friendly scratch. They
seem to enjoy having the thick green algae that collects on their skin gently
One is guaranteed to see manatees in
, if not in the Homosassa or Crystal Rivers, then in the
. Here several manatees are in
permanent residence. The park also
serves as a rehabilitation center for wounded manatees that, upon recuperation,
will be released into the wild. The
park's main attraction, especially with the kids, is the floating Fish Bowl
Observatory. Situated on Homosassa
Spring (the source of the
), the observatory allows one to
view the manatees and many species of fish from an underwater perspective.
The park covers more than 160 acres and has many species of wildlife on
display, including alligators, deer, snakes, and many species of birds.
Manatees aren't the only reason to visit
. The Withlacoochee State Trail
passes through the county. The trail
is part of the rails-to-trails program and offers some excellent hiking and
cycling opportunities. Forty-seven
miles in length, the trail is popular for family outings.
Many pack a picnic lunch and make a day of it.
The rivers of the county allow one to experience a different
--away from the theme parks and beach destinations.
Kayaking along the rivers is something not to be missed.
There is just something about being down in the water, in a kayak
that makes one feel more a part of the natural surroundings.
We took a half-day trip on the
with Homosassa Kayak & Expedition Company.
It was a leisurely trip on the river, down and back.
The current is negligible, so paddling upstream is not difficult.
Along the way we observed many different wildlife species, including a
dolphin that leaped several times only a few feet in front of us.
We passed an island covered with hundreds of birds, almost every tree
limb had anhingas or cormorants perched on it.
A group of Brown Pelicans flew by, nearly skimming the water's surface.
Single and tandem kayaks are available.
Tandem kayaks are excellent for pairing younger adventurers with an
experienced adult or for couples looking to explore the river together.
has a laid-back atmosphere--no thronging masses of people here.
It is a great place to relax and get a little closer to nature.
Accommodations and attractions are low to moderately priced--excellent
for families on a budget, looking for a great vacation getaway.
is about an hour's drive north of
or an hour's drive west of
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