Lovable lugs put a Florida town on the map Manatee: Most of the few remaining members of this endangered species hang out in the underground warm springs of Crystal River.

April 06, 1997|By David Seideman | David Seideman,NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

The woods and waters of Crystal River -- a 2 1/2 -hour drive north of Tampa -- support fish, bird and botanical life seldom found elsewhere in the United States. As you cruise the clear bays, estuaries and rivers that lace this landscape, or hike the trails that wind their way through local nature preserves, you come upon more than a dozen threatened or endangered species, including the bald eagle, red-tailed hawk and Florida black bear. This is, as the promotional brochures say, the "soul of Florida's Nature Coast."

The area has three wildlife sanctuaries, including a National Wildlife Refuge. But what has put Crystal River on the map is the West Indian manatee, the legendary sea cow. Ungainly when beached, in the water the manatees have a hypnotic charisma that may explain why ancient mariners sometimes mistook them for mermaids. Numbering just 2,300 in the United States, this endangered and exotic animal -- whose closest relative is the elephant -- resides almost exclusively in Florida, and the largest concentration of manatees is here.

The town's warm, underground springs are a comfortable 72-74 degrees year-round, providing an ideal winter resort for migrating herds. For about $35, the town's dive shops will rent snorkel gear, which allows you to see them up close, and provide a boat trip to the springs where the animals congregate. Though shy and reclusive, they have been known to glide over and give a visitor a nudge or nuzzle.

On the morning I ventured out, at first light -- the best time to see them -- only two appeared among two dozen snorkelers; this winter's warm weather has lessened the animals' dependence on these waters. After venturing tantalizingly close to me, they drifted off, more intent on retreating to their protected sanctuaries than hanging around to amuse a tourist.

The National Wildlife Refuge here is the only place in the United States where swimming with the animals is sanctioned, but the experience has drawbacks. Evidence suggests that an invasion of snorkelers is detrimental to the manatees' health.

To maintain their delicate equilibrium, the sea mammals rest in the warm waters much of the day, consuming up to 10 percent of their body weight, which can amount to 200 pounds of aquatic vegetation. Federal law prohibits harassment of endangered species -- that is, swimmers can't do anything that would alter the creatures' behavior. People who ride, chase or separate manatees from their calves are breaking the law; you have to let the animals approach you on their own.

Easy way out

Aside from environmental considerations, snorkeling in a wet suit -- as the dive shop requires -- is like being inserted into an outsize tire tube. Despite my flippers, I had little mobility and kept twirling in the water like so much flotsam.

There are easier and drier ways to observe the animals. En route to a few of their favorite springs, the sea mammals travel beneath the Kings Bay Drive Bridge -- a prime viewing spot about a mile past the refuge.

Better yet, drive 15 minutes south on U.S. 19 to the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. At the entrance, visitors board a pontoon boat for a scenic half-hour tour along Pepper Creek, a spring-fed stream. Park rangers identify the live oaks, Sabal palms, loblolly pines and other native trees that line the creek's banks. Red-bellied turtles and wood ducks pop in and out of the water. Overhead, a great blue heron sails through the sky, spreading its wings, and an osprey suspends itself in midair before plunging into the water to grab a fish.

At the end of the ride, visitors follow a paved trail through a semi-natural zoo occupied by native Florida animals -- including an injured panther and alligators that cannot survive in the wild. The park also serves as a rehab center and refuge for manatees that have been orphaned or injured in the wild or those born in captivity. Availing themselves of the springs at the headwaters of Homosassa River, many of these manatees will be able to re-acclimate themselves to their natural environment so that one day they will be released into the wild. An underwater observatory straddling the springs puts you face-to-face with these creatures at play.

Hiking, too

While Crystal River is best explored by water, I enjoyed a hike at the brand-new Crystal River State Buffer Preserve. (Go north of Crystal River on U.S. 19 just past the hospital and Jake's No. 1, a roadside food stand specializing in a Southern delicacy, Cajun boiled peanuts and garlic-fried peanuts.) At the 4,000-acre preserve, there is a well-blazed two-mile "wilderness trail," where you stroll beneath giant live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Among the wildflowers growing in the grasslands are blue flag, a member of the iris family; yellow-eyed grass, which sprouts three-petaled flowers atop a wiry stalk; and meadow beauties, with their four large petals.

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