who arrive every year by the hundreds to find warmth, food and shelter, and maybe, just maybe, to visit us, the curious humans. The area is also safe for these endangered mammals whose lives are often cut short by environmental factors and fatal encounters with speeding watercraft.

Our days in Citrus County started very early in the morning, as this is the perfect time to snorkel with the manatees before they get tired of visitors. We boarded a pontoon boat about 7 a.m., and as we cruised to where we would snorkel, a gentle mist hugged the water. We were able to observe the manatees as they maneuvered through the water. They are quite agile for such a large animal, sometimes even doing barrel rolls in the water. They slowly glided towards us using their paddle-like tail to propell themselves up and down and, steering with their flippers, they gracefully moving their 12-foot-long bodies through the water. Our boat was soon surrounded by this gentle species.

Within minutes the captain stopped the engines, and we were soon given instructions. Whatever you do, he said -- and it doesn’t matter how excited you are -- remember the three golden rules: minimize splash noise; act with very slow movements; and when you do scratch one of these friendly, gentle gray giants on the back or stomach, never touch with more than one hand at a time! Two hands are illegal. The Endangered Species Act forbids touching a manatee unless it touches you first, and they will let you know. Remember you need to let the mammal make the first move.

The rules are strict in Crystal River, and the protection of this endangered species is taken very seriously. There is absolutely no chasing, riding or harassing the manatees. But we can assure you these rules won't diminish your unique experience in the least. Most of manatees here are very social and will come to you. This is not a penned up, artificial setting with captive animals. Here you are in a real river with real mammals free to come and go as they choose, and they choose to be here because you might show up and touch them.

Very slowly we entered the water, trying not to disturb them and also trying to keep down the amount of sediment on the bottom of the river. Upon our descent, some of the manatees were still sleeping while others were slow-paddling around. Swimming with the manatees is actually not at all difficult. There were young children as well as seniors on our trip, and there was no hesitation about meeting up with these big guys. There was only an abundant feeling of energy and curiosity among us all.

For land lubbers:
Not all visitors want to get nose-to-nose with the manatees. The best place for non- swimmers to view these endangered mammals is Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, which showcases native Florida wildlife including alligators and the American crocodile. The park, located 75 miles north of Tampa, is impressive with 185 acres and a 45-foot deep natural spring that gushes forth millions of gallons of fresh water per hour from more than thirty natural springs.

Most importantly the park provides refuge for captive-born manatees and a halfway house for rehabilitating those who will be returned to the wild. Some manatees that have been injured or orphaned will spend their lives in the park as they are unable to survive in the wild. The park also serves as a research and observation center, offering three daily educational programs to the public. There is also a floating underwater observatory in the spring that provides a fish eye view of the manatees -- the next best thing to actually swimming with them. The huge windows allow visitors to view the manatees at close range as they frolic, roll and enjoy their daily lettuce fix!