We wanted to see the Manatees, and we discovered that Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge had been created specifically for the protection of the endangered Florida Manatee. This sounded like our kind of place, so off we went.
It turns out that land access to view the Manatees is via a boardwalk, and we were surprised to learn that you booked your visit through a private tour company. We did so, and got loaded on a small bus with a bunch of other folks and were deposited next to the boardwalk. Here we found the typical NWR sign and got a quick briefing from a refuge volunteer.
Imagine our surprise when we found the springs full of kayaks and snorkelers!! Oh, and a few Manatees as well. It turns out that these springs were purchased primarily by the City of Crystal River, and then leased to the refuge system for operation, with the stipulation that public visitation to the springs continue to be allowed. After all, it is their main tourist attraction.
So the picture you see above is the setting within this NWR for viewing Manatees!! I failed to capture an image showing the 100 or so snorkelers who were also in the water. Though there were rules in place forbidding the snorkelers and kayakers from approaching, touching, or interfering with the Manatees in any way, the FWS volunteers there had a full-time job policing this crowd.
Check out these figures: On an average weekend or holiday, they average 630 swimmers and 315 kayaks and canoes in these springs. Weekdays the numbers drop to 475 swimmers and 190 boats. What a zoo!!
There was a small "sanctuary" area roped off that kayaks and snorkelers were not allowed to enter, and guess where all of the Manatees were clustered? Yep, in the small roped off area. We did see several in this part of the springs.
They resemble large submerged logs in the water.
Occasionally they surface just enough to breath, and then submerge once again.
This was perhaps the least satisfying wildlife viewing experience we've ever encountered in a National Wildlife Refuge, but we understand that the refuge has its hands pretty well tied on how they can administer this site. The good news is that they have some proposed new rules out for public review and comment that would set aside additional off-limits areas within the springs, reduce the hours that swimmers could enter the springs, and eliminate the kayaks and canoes altogether from the springs. I hope that they have some luck getting these new rules enacted. This is, after all, and Endangered Species!