Crystal River

I once had a cat that approached me exactly like that. Coming right at me, top of the head first until … bump … “scratch me!” It then slowly rolled over onto its back to blissfully enjoy a good belly-rub.

Only this ‘kitty’ was a 2000-pounder, with flippers instead of paws, but still, unmistakably cute and cuddly. A close encounter with the docile manatee leaves no one untouched. These gentle giants seem friendly and curious, as they seek out close contact with humans.

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Okay, so this undersigned descendant of the Vikings, who crossed the Atlantic in open boats, was a woos. I just don’t like to be cold all right? And neither do the manatees, it seems, which is why they congregate in this relatively small area of Kings Bay each year.

Kings Bay, which is approximately two miles in diameter or 600 acres, is home to the largest concentration of manatees in the world. The inlet is a bit warmer than the surrounding seas, and despite their generous layer of blubber, the water temperature in the spring-fed rivers, which ranges from 20-22°C (68–72°F), makes for a somewhat cosier place to over-winter than the open coastline.

“Hello there”

Before we entered the water, our dive guide warned us of the state’s policy against harassment of the animals—as with all wildlife, one cannot catch or feed animals, but also one cannot pursue them, ride them or otherwise harass them. However, we were told, if a manatee came up to us on its own accord, it may want a scratch on the head or belly, which we could do with only one hand at a time.

At first, I saw nothing in the murky waters but then I noticed a blimp-shaped silhouette to my right. It was an approaching manatee all right, and it had spotted me. He got closer and closer … and closer ... until the giant creature just bumped right into me, albeit gently. Once I got over my shock over such an unabashed direct approach of making my acquaintance—no introductions necessary, it seems—I reached out and scratched the cuddly creature right on its coarse head, which immediately produced what I interpreted as an ecstatic expression—or so I imagined.

The manatees are not exactly the prettiest creatures on the planet. They are grey and wrinkly and have coarse skin that is sometimes infested with ...

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