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Coming to Crystal River to visit the manatees is the highlight of my year. This is the fourth time we’ve driven the 10 hours from our home in North Carolina. We don’t care. The long drive is well worth it. Plus we have an excuse to buy crisps and cookies and sugary drinks at gas stations.
By the time we arrive it is nearly 9pm. We are tempted to stop at the bridge where we normally view the manatees from land, but it is too late. We are tired and it is too dark to see anything anyway. Any excuse to dive into bed.
15 hours later and we are finally here, in the entrance to Three Sisters springs. The sun is shining, it is 76F, the water is clear and I can see a bunch of manatees swimming toward the spring. The high tide makes it easier for them to get in there, and for swimmers to avoid colliding with the big guys. Because they are everywhere. It is very easy to find yourself in a manatee rush hour with nowhere to go. As I kayak through the entrance I have to be fast as underneath me there are four manatees trying to make their way in. I don’t want them to come up to breathe and find my kayak in their way.
We leave the kayaks floating in one corner of the springs and as we put our snorkeling gear on, the local fishes swim toward us to check us out. They nibble on my toes and try to hide in my shadow. I take photos of them and then I remember that there is somebody waiting for me. Somewhere in the spring there is a playful manatee calf that will want to come closer and grab my leg with his flippers and roll over in front of me. There is always one. But today’s playful calf is not interested in my leg. It is my feet that captivate him. He swims toward me and dives down at them. He starts nibbling my flipper and starts making his way up my ankle. It is then that I can feel his skin and whiskers on the bare skin of my ankle. It is rough and his whiskers feel kind of weird. Not too rough, but not too soft. He doesn’t seem to want to stop and that kind of freaks me out. He might be a baby but he is big. I slowly pull my foot away, he looks at me and swims away looking for new victims. I guess he is disappointed he cannot eat my toes.
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