Welcome to the real Magic Kingdom. Never mind Mickey Mouse, Florida's true celebrity critters are found in the depths of the Crystal River...
Our encounter only lasted ten minutes but I was instantly in love. Our eyes met, a lingering look that belied the mere seconds it took, then, in an instant, she reached for my hand and held it close to her chest. There we floated, amid the cool water, locked in a moment, a close embrace. Then, minutes later she was gone, taking with her a little piece of my heart.
That was my first introduction to Florida’s manatees – the so-called sea cows – who, every winter, leave the food-rich but decreasing temperatures of the Atlantic Ocean to warm up amid the natural warm springs of Crystal River. But it wouldn’t be my last encounter.
First spied by the explorer Christopher Columbus in 1493, these gentle giants were originally mistaken for mermaids (I assume he had perhaps spent a little too long away from both dry land and women), before being recognised as marine mammals whose closest ancestor is actually the elephant.
As well as coming to this area of the Sunshine State for centuries, they are also found in the Amazon – though habitat loss, ship strikes and pollution means they are now endangered there. However, the good news is that in the USA, where they are protected by law, their numbers are slowly rising.
And, each year, between November and April, those of us who realise that Florida’s real celebrities are found in the water rather than in the confines of a theme park, have the chance to swim with these wild animals...
“We don’t harass them, they harass us,” explained our guide and self-described ‘manatee whisperer’, Heidi, as we headed out on the flat, calm waters at 6.30am the morning after I arrived.
The best time to spot the manatees is early in the morning, and I was joined by six other visitors who had opted to brave the cold temperatures of a pre-dawn start. Following a safety briefing (meant to keep the manatees, rather than us, from harm – swimmers are in no danger), we neared the spring known as King’s Bay, one of five places where they are known to congregate in the area.
As the engine fell silent, we saw the tell-tale bubbles rising to the surface. Being vegetarians, they feed on sea grass on the floor of the river, and spend their days eating, sleeping and – as the bubbles indicated – farting. Which, by happy coincidence, actually serves to help manatee spotters like us find them.
Already dressed in thick wetsuits, we pulled on our snorkels and gently lowered ourselves into the water (despite their size, sudden movements can scare them off). Heidi showed us how to move: slowly, softly and with hardly any leg movements so that we wouldn’t disturb the manatees or the muddy floor, which would cause the water to become cloudy and decrease visibility.
I put my head under the water and it chilled my skin instantly, making me shiver uncontrollably – I already found myself thinking like a manatee and began moving towards the streams of the warmer springs.
Scanning below and ahead, I could, at first, see nothing more than big grey stones lying on the silt. I thought we must have perhaps been mistaken about the surface bubbles – there seemed to be no manatees here – but then she came, cautiously and slowly, towards me, grabbing my hand with her fin and offering me a moment of closeness with a wild animal I never dreamed possible.
Her whiskers – which she uses to navigate – brushed against my cheek as she nuzzled my goggles and, despite the cold water, I felt warm all over.
Behind her came a young male who rolled over in the water so that I would stroke his belly. Around and around he went, his skin feeling smooth like an uncooked chicken breast.
Then, when he’d had his fill, he moved on to reveal a mother and calf cautiously swimming deeper below, stopping for a couple of minutes to eye me up before continuing about their business.
Floating on the surface means interactions occur on the manatees’ terms only, and so, while bobbing around like pieces of human-shaped flotsam, we watched many more arrive and leave.
Some were sleeping on the bottom, only rising to breathe every 15 to 20 minutes; others were swimming along, slowly swishing their huge scooped tails, stirring up the water as though mixing milk into a freshly brewed cup of coffee.
More still were happily munching on the vegetation, grunting noisily as they chewed the underwater cud.
I could have stayed all day watching them, but I had another date with an equally as fascinating (and famous) Florida creature: the alligator.
Further to the south, in the county of Sarasota, is the Myakka River State Park. Many visitors go for a boat ride on the water (from where you can spy the odd sunbathing ’gator), or explore one of the nature trails that weave between the palmetto and oak trees, either tramping the forest floor or teetering in the air on a 7.5m-high canopy walkway, which climbs up to a tower overlooking the whole parkland. But I set off instead for a spot known as the Deep Hole.
Only 30 permits are issued every day for this 5km round-trip hike where, if conditions allow (it needs to be following a dry spell), hundreds upon hundreds of ’gators gather, feeding on the fish that become trapped in the underwater cavern as the water recedes in the heat.
I arrived before the park was even open, so I could secure my coveted pass. I wandered triumphantly along the old dirt track 30 minutes later accompanied by the sound of boat-tailed grackle birds chirping in the trees, the weeping branches of which reflected perfectly in the pools of water that had gathered below following a recent storm. Vultures eyed me curiously as I passed beneath the branches on which they were perched, alerting one another to my presence.
The humidity was rising as I neared the clearing. I stopped and looked intently at the water.
It was deep and spilling out over the riverbanks – sadly not the right conditions to see the ’gators undertake their mass gathering. Not to be thwarted, I waited: watching and listening.
Something caught my eye. At first it looked like nothing more than a broken tree branch floating on the water’s surface, but after staring at it for some time, I realised that this ‘branch’ was actually watching me.
It was an alligator, its green scales appearing almost completely black when wet.
It lingered on the surface for a while and then disappeared for several minutes, leaving little more than a spool of concentric circles on the surface. Then it popped up again, this time a few metres closer to where I was.
Standing on the muddy bank, watching it watching me, I felt all my senses heighten. I smelt the musty, earthy tone of the forest, heard the loud buzz of the cicadas, shrill and sharp, and felt my throat begin to go dry.
Being quite alone by this wild pocket of water, where I was easily outnumbered by reptiles, each capable of picking me off should they have desired it, I found myself not scared but utterly in awe, disbelieving that all this existed so close to the cartoon characters of Disney World.
The following couple of days were filled with more unexpectedly wild encounters. I spent my time spotting heron and black-necked stilts at the Audubon Society’s Celery Fields wetlands, just 20 minutes’ drive from downtown Sarasota, and spying starfish from my kayak as I paddled through the mangroves of Lido Key Beach, just metres from the urban skyline at sunset.
I even found myself followed by a small pod of common dolphins as I journeyed to Venice to dive and snorkel for fossilised megalodon teeth in an ancient riverbed (I didn’t find one of those but I did unearth a dugong rib, a stingray’s barb and the tooth of a now-extinct snaggletooth shark).
In between those planned experiences were chance meetings with more creatures. These included huge brown pelicans and a flock of black-and-white snowy plover, who paid me a visit while I was eating my breakfast on the beach, as well as a softshell turtle crossing the road in front of my car as I headed back to the airport.
I’d ignored the state of Florida on previous visits to the USA, owing to the proliferation of theme parks and crowds of families seeking Mickey Mouse.
But while no encounter I had quite rivalled that of my first heartbeat-skipping introduction to the manatees, each one had me convinced, more than ever, that this really was a place where magic happens – where wild animals, if you give them half a chance, will take you by the hand and show you a whole new world you never knew existed.
The author travelled with Visit Sarasota and Discover Crystal River, staying at Crystal Blue Lagoon B&B.
It's on the edge of the water and decorated with images of the manatees – from the bedsheets to the shower curtains – making it feel like you’re staying with a favourite (if eccentric) aunt. Doubles start from $185 (£142).
In Sarasota, Siesta Key Beachside Villas are just a five minute stroll from the beach (pictured) and a range of eateries and pubs. Doubles start from $189 (£145).
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