Manatees, Dolphins, Pelicans, Oh My!
Wow, what a morning! Jim and I had arranged a guided kayak tour around Kings Bay at Crystal River with Aardvark's Kayak Tours. The owners, Matt and Susan Clemmons, are unusually qualified to give wildlife tours of the area. Susan, a native of the Crystal River area, had long career with the Florida State Park Service and was one of the first female Florida State Park Rangers. Matt too has an extensive conservation career protecting Florida's natural environment. With degrees in Marine Science and Wildlife Biology, he is the go-to resource for Manatees.
Together, they offer a one-two punch of history, conservation efforts, and deep understanding of the marine life, animals and habitats of this precious area. After spending the morning with them, Jim and I walked away with a new appreciation for conservation and sensed an urgency to protect the wild places and creatures that still survive urban sprawl and over development. Susan and Matt met us at the launch area early on Saturday morning and we were in our kayaks and on the water in a jiffy.
The water was quite still at first, and the paddle was a delightful, easy going glide through the bay. The wind kicked up after about an hour but the sun was shining and the temps absolutely perfect. I felt a little like I was entering a National Geographic shoot with all the wildlife around and Matt's expert narrative about each species and their habitat.
First the dolphins - it was quite unexpected, but a small pod appeared right around our kayaks feeding and playing with a buoy marking a crab trap. They pulled it around and dove down with it... Matt was a little concerned that they might actually be caught in the line, but they swam off seconds later, so the concern was unfounded - this time.
A couple of small islands in the bay caught our attention. The first, was quite wooded and the trees were loaded with Pelicans (and I don't know how many other kinds of birds!). It was a noisy roost and quite a sight to see such large birds like Pelicans sitting in the trees.
The other, Christmas Island, had a vacation home on it, but it was completely overtaken with birds. Like college students at a house party, Vultures, Pelicans, and Cormorants sat on the roof, on the screen porch, around the deck and down the steps. The sand bar in front of the island played host to dozens of Gulls. The whole scene reminded me of an Alfred Hitchcock movie!
The Three Sisters Springs area in the narrow canals were crowded with dive boats - with many, many snorkelers and people floating around trying to get close to the manatees. it was a little disturbing. Too many people in such a small space made me think the poor animals had to feel a little trapped by all the commotion.
Matt told us that Manatees seem to like people and will quite willingly come up to them to see what they are all about. They are curious and very passive creatures. Nonetheless, we paddled by keeping our distance from the crowds and were rewarded with several sightings of large and small manatees - even a mother and baby - swimming close to our kayaks. They are quite graceful for such large animals. They pop to the surface to breathe and their "puff" on the surface was an alert they were near. Jim froze with his paddle in mid stroke when he saw a large manatee swim towards him and then under his kayak. Though enthralled, he did manage to catch a photo of the tail!
Matt told us that in the winter the manatees come up the river to warm themselves over the spring outlets leaking from the aquifer. The water rising up from below keeps them warm. Unfortunately, there is little food for them in the springs area, so as soon as the weather warms up, they head for the Gulf to feed. In summer, they remain in the Gulf, although a small population seems to have made a permanent home in the springs area.
We went on to other, less crowded areas of the bay and enjoyed the wildlife along the way. By the time we finished two of the three hours allotted for the tour, our arms and backs were ready to call it a day! Matt was gracious and guided us back to the launch area. We had a wonderful time, a great upper body workout and learned about wildlife and conservation in a most entertaining way. We were so impressed with the good work Matt and Susan continue to do and were grateful to be able to spend time with them and share their passion for the Crystal River area, its wildlife and conservation.