As mist hangs over the dark waters and the first rays of sunlight stretch through the trees, I'm right on time for a manatee encounter. During the winter, they seek out warm waters in springs to keep them toasty while they sleep. While divers aren't allowed inside Crystal River's clearly marked protected zones, if you patiently wait outside those areas, the lumbering sea cows will approach you. The youngsters are the most playful. They'll swim right up to you, turn on their sides or backs and rub their flippers on their bellies.
"Adult manatees do not really have any natural marine predators, so they are generally relaxed around divers."
It's all about the manatees here at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, in Citrus County, near the town of Crystal River, where waters from Kings Bay feed a collection of springs. The water temperature is consistently in the low to mid-70s, and the depth at the three springs ranges from 4 to 18 feet. Although you can dive with the big sea cows year-round, late spring is the most opportune time. Just mind the rules and boundaries established by the refuge. The easiest way here is to fly to Tampa or Orlando--served by all major U.S. airlines from most every American city--then drive the 70 miles north to Crystal River, where there are many dive shops to choose from that offer underwater guided manatee tours. Some Tampa operators also offer day and weekend trips. Log on to visitcitrus.com for a directory of dive operators and resorts.