FLORIDA A close encounter of the manatee kind

Swimming with the manatees gives one a respect for the animals.
CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. -- It's winter, the temperature is hovering around freezing, and I'm wearing ... a wetsuit?
This isn't the Sunshine State of travel agency brochures. But it's the perfect time and temperature for hanging out with some of Florida's lovable endangered creatures -- manatees.
In the summer, Florida manatees range as far west as Mississippi and as far north as Virginia. When the weather cools, these plant-eating aquatic mammals, sometimes called sea cows, retreat far southward or into natural warm springs sprinkled among Florida's inland coastal waterways. The promise of 72-degree water year-round draws snorkelers to places like Crystal River and Homosassa Springs, two warm-water sites about 60 miles north of Tampa on Florida's Gulf Coast.
That warmth seemed a stretch as a dozen of us crept along the Crystal River on a recent Sunday morning. Our pontoon boat moved slowly to avoid hitting a manatee, many of which bear the scars of past encounters with boat propellers. Others don't survive.
It made for a shivery ride, even with our fleece jackets, knit hats and gloves.
When we arrived at an open space between two manatee sanctuaries, marked by buoy lines, the water still looked uninviting. After the initial shock of the cold, though, the water felt fine and the search was on.
Starting out
It was tough going at first, mostly because I'd chosen a holiday weekend for my trip. A few dozen snorkels poked out of the water and occasionally bumped into one another, and the manatees seemed to have skipped the morning mingling session to forage for some of the 300 pounds of plants (one-tenth of their body weight) they eat each day. I spent 30 minutes or so swimming around, trying to discern whether each light brown shape I saw below me was beast or boulder.
When I finally saw one, there was no doubt.
I had unknowingly floated to the edge of one of the off-limits sanctuaries and was looking face to face at a magnificent creature.
The manatee seemed equally curious, tilting its head to one side and the other in its gaze, so much so that I felt that I was looking into a mirror, with the object ahead moving in time with my own head.
I was bound by law -- and a potential $10,000 fine -- from swimming or even reaching in to touch it, and the manatee's calm suggested it knew as much.
I simply marveled at the enormous creature from a yard's distance.
Later, I found a few manatees swimming among a few snorkelers.
I rubbed their bellies as they rolled over like itchy dogs and playfully pointed their flippers at the spots they wanted to be scratched.
Their skin looked coarse and wrinkled, but it felt slick with algae.
Making a comeback
Though manatees are making a comeback with the help of friendly laws and heightened awareness among water sports enthusiasts, I still fancied myself touching a dinosaur, of reaching out to something that might not be reachable for my children and theirs. Brushing my hand apologetically over its scars was like slipping my hand into a picture in a history book.
Manatees have long been common from November to April, but the population's renaissance is evident in the number of manatees that stay in the summer months, says Ron Goodenow, owner of American Pro Diving Center in Crystal River.
He estimates that the summer population there has doubled in recent years, from 30 to 40 manatees just two years ago to 80 to 90 last summer.
Much of the increase, he says, is because of the caution people take in manatee-inhabited areas after they've had one-on-one encounters with the animals.
His dive shop also requires snorkelers to watch an educational video before swimming with the manatees.
"From the point after they leave here, after they've had that experience, I know those people will be looking out for them when they're in those boats," Goodenow says.
Gaining popularity
Goodenow has operated tours in the Crystal and Homosassa rivers for 14 years, and he says the area has become increasingly popular through the years.
"This is the only place in the world where you can go play with the manatees in the wild," he says. "So we're very fortunate to be able to do this."
The air was still chilly when I finally climbed back into the boat, and the hot chocolate our captain had brought felt good in my throat.
He told us how the Japanese will travel halfway around the world to touch a manatee, which they believe has healing powers.
I glanced around at the smiles that had replaced the shivering grimaces on my boatmates' faces, and couldn't have agreed more.