Crystal River

Those of you who are not from Florida probably have your own idea of what my state is like-- beaches, palm trees, face-eating drug addicts, and whatever other crazy reports John Stewart has relayed to you. But the Florida that I love is a very different place.

My beloved Florida covers the land of the panhandle to North Central Florida, specifically the area between Tallahassee and Gainesville. Tallahassee is the geological tail of the Appalachian Mountains, and our big hills, tall pine trees and red clay soil are not what people expect out of the state. As you approach Gainesville, Florida's swampy nature emerges, and the habitat becomes dotted with palmettos, flat marsh prairies, a network of springfed rivers bubble up through the woods, connecting aboveground flows with underwater aquifers.

It’s here that we find the Florida Manatee.

I don’t think you realize how exciting it is to see a manatee. First of all, they are huge. They are 8 feet long. Sometimes they are 10 feet long. Sometimes they are three feet long, and that is when they are babies. Second of all, they are extremely cute, with their little faces and their flippers and their snouts that poke up above the water. Third of all, it is novel to see something that lives underwater most of the time. It is like stumbling across the inhabitant of another world. A very wet world that we can never be a part of. Fourth of all, how could you not be excited to see the animal that inspired a meme like this.

Manatees spend almost all day eating, and their lifestyles and habits are dictated by the fact that they can eat up to 15% of their body weight each day. That’s 150 lbs of plant material each day. They spend the warm summers traversing the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic in search of fodder, and in the winters they head to the rivers, swimming upstream to the springs. Groundwater temperature in Florida hovers around 70 degrees, and the closer the manatees can get to the source of the river, the warmer they will be-- they cannot survive in water temperatures below 68 degrees.

Thus begins the great Winter Manatee Migration. There are four subpopulations of manatees that flock to different areas of the state to huddle together in the springs in October through March, and it’s the best time of the year to see them. These dudes have their spots picked, and they return year after year to enjoy the warmth and food provided by the springs. However, as soon as their journey upriver begins, life becomes a lot more dangerous.

Manatees are slow movers. They’re big, for one thing. The average manatee weighs about a ton. And they are really focused on eating. One hundred and fifty pounds of plants a day, remember? So they’re pretty busy when jackasses on speeding motorboats zip through the tranquil river waters. Of the 392 manatees reported dead in 2012, 80 of them were killed by motorboats. When I was a little girl, the Florida Governor and Cabinet approved a series of Manatee Protection Plans which limited motorboat speed and activity in rivers where manatees are known to swim, and designated manatee protection zones areas where they overwinter. Nowadays you can see signs all over high traffic rivers proclaiming No Wake Zones, and awareness about manatees seems ubiquitous in those areas. The Save the Manatee Club has done invaluable work by providing said signs, as well as compiling helpful information about manatees, running the Adopt-A-Manatee program, and lobbying for support of manatees and their habitat.

Despite these turnarounds, in 2013 the manatee death toll is higher than ever recorded-- 769 were reported dead in November. Many of them died in a red tide bloom in the Indian River Lagoon after the Army Corps of Engineers dumped stormwater laced with fertilizer into Lake Okeechobee. Red tide is a deadly proliferation of algae that overtakes fresh and saltwater bodies. Algae becomes a problem when water is oversaturated with nutrients-- nutrients like chemical fertilizers that are dumped by the ton on Florida’s agricultural lands. In the Indian River Lagoon alone, 111 manatees died due to this pollution.

Time to really get on a high horse now: this is why organic food is important folks. The chemicals that are used to grow the vast majority of the world’s food supply are toxic, and they cause deadly implications in delicate ecological systems. Florida is a huge ag state, and all of the runoff from conventional farms flows right where it’s where it’s always flowed for millennia- right into our waterways. This is why my farm is organic. This is why you should by buying organic food. It’s important y’all.

In any case. This year I enacted Manatee Count 2013/14. I am big into spreadsheets. One time, I made a spreadsheet for all of the fun summer things I wanted to accomplish, like canoeing all the rivers and making jam out of all the fruit. Another time, I made a spreadsheet of all the different kinds of ice cream I wanted to make, like fig with candied bacon and blackberry peppercorn (I did not make it too far through this spreadsheet because the rate of ice cream consumption in my house grew to outrageous proportions). Manatee Count is a spreadsheet that keeps track of how many manatees I see and where I saw them. I am serious about my spreadsheets. It’s a Type A characteristic that keeps surprising me as I get older.

I did some research (correction: Travis did some research). Turns out one of the large manatee subpopulations hangs out all winter at the springs that feed Crystal River. I’d never been to Crystal River. Travis had never been to Crystal River. Also, turns out that Travis’ friend Brendan was in Orlando for a conference in October. Travis, Brendan and I all went to college together, and Brendan now lives in Philly so he’s not down South very often. He also brought his girlfriend Ann Marie, who is from Pennsylvania and hasn’t spend a ton of time in Florida. A plan was hatched. Time to kayak Crystal River.

We arrived on a beautiful day in early October. For those of you not from Florida, Autumn means something totally different for us than it does in the rest of the country. Fall means you can go outside again without immediate discomfort caused by heat and insects. It means the humidity percentage drops by half, and that you can go swimming AND have a bonfire on the same day. It was perfect for kayaking. That’s what I’m trying to say.

We pulled up to Captain Mike’s Sunshine River Tours near Pete’s Pier, which puts you right into King’s Bay. King’s Bay is the mouth of the Crystal River, which continues on to flow into the Gulf. It’s been weirdly developed to make it seem like a waterpark lazy river ride. Remember, this Florida is further South than I am accustomed to. You say “kayak on a river” and I picture water grass, overhanging cypress branches, snakes, alligators. This river has been domesticated so that the edges of the river is cemented and the lawns of the luxury waterfront homes butt up to the water’s edge. Lots of old people. Lots of boats. And also manatees.

We rented our two tandem kayaks and set off with the map provided by the kayak rental. Three Sisters Spring was first stop. We all paddled up the main channel for a bit, ducked under a bridge and came upon the spring. It’s tucked off to the side with a narrow canal entranceway that was clogged with lots of other kayakers with our same idea. The spring itself is not that big. It’s the size of an olympic swimming pool. A crystal clear, sandy bottomed, beautiful swimming pool. There were about 25 of people there, tourists in canoes and kayaks, and Manatee Watch volunteers in yellow vests stationed in their own vessels to make sure no assholes were jumping in the water trying to ride the manatee.

Yes, manatee singular. There was one big dude in there chilling, it looked like he was asleep. But you know what? This was my first chance in my life to go swimming with a manatee. Up until now I had only seen them from the river tours at Wakulla Springs, and there’s no swimming allowed in that instance. Incidentally, I had just taken the Wakulla Springs river boat tour a couple weeks before and saw seven manatees, so this big guy brought my count up to eight. We docked our boats on some cypress knees, slipped into the water (72 degrees still feels pretty cold) and swam up close. Luckily, Travis brought his masks, and we all took turns looking at the big guy even though he didn’t seem at all interested in us. It was pretty awesome.

We heard rumors from one of the Manatee Watch volunteers that there was a mother and calf swimming up near Hunters Spring, so we spun the kayaks around and headed North. We passed a few tour boats with folks in wet suits craning their neck over the side of the boat, so we knew we were on the right track. And there, right in the middle of this cemented river was a mama and baby just munching away on river roughage. We swam up pretty close to get a good look, but followed the rules and didn’t harass them or touch them.

Crystal River has built an interesting tourist economy focused on these manatees. There are multiple companies offering kayak rentals and manatee and scallop tours. It’s interesting to see this area capitalizing on natural resources instead of bulldozing it all to build riverside strip malls. Granted, Crystal River is by no means wilderness, but it’s a far cry from South Florida’s Everglades draining and endless suburbia. We paddled down toward the Southern end of the bay in search of more manatees at King Spring, and on the way passed the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. It gave us a glimpse of what that area looked like 150 years ago, when the fear of yellow fever kept enterprising Yankees from developing Florida’s wild springs into vacation resorts. It was quieter down there. Most of the boat traffic was interested in the Northern part of the bay, and the hum of motors and belting country music was limited to the distance.

Sable palms still towered over the two or three small islands designated to be a preserve; tall grasses snaked out from the land to greet the water in a marshy carpet, and great white herons made use of the sanctuary to catch their daily meal. It was peaceful. I wish the preserve covered more than three islands.

Turns out early October is still a little early to catch lots and lots of manatees, and the Manatee Count stayed at 10 for that day. By mid-October, the rules for the springs change-- people are still allowed to kayak into the springs but no one is allowed to leave the boat because there are just too many manatees everywhere. Those rules stay in play until mid-March, when the rivers and ocean warm up enough that the springs aren’t a life or death necessity. There were probably lots of manatees swimming up and down the river, but the water isn’t clear and the river is so wide we didn’t see anymore. Luckily, manatee season is still well underway, and the Manatee Count 2013/14 spreadsheet still has plenty of cells to be filled.