It was a dark and stormy night. No, wait, wrong story. Sorry, let’s try this again. It was a bright and sunny morning when we set off on the Manatee Paddle. Brannen coordinated the Friday paddle of the Chassahowitzka and I was excited to join him since I’d never paddled there before. We met at 10:30am at Chassahowitzka park boat ramp parking area and prepared to launch. It was Diana’s first trip on the Manatee Paddle and she was anxious to see her first manatee in the wild. It didn’t take long as there was a nice size manatee drifting at the put in just out from the boat ramp. We also saw what we thought was a small shark, which was later confirmed by people on shore.

The Chassahowitzka area has served as a roost for local vultures for decades so we got an up close look through new eyes at an animal most of us only get to see nibbling on roadkill as we zip by in our cars. They’re really pretty cool birds but just a note–do not paddle directly under the trees in which they sit. We spent the majority of Friday paddling around, exploring springs and creeks. We paddled up one creek to the head of a springs where the water was so shallow you had to walk the last hundred yards or so to get to the springs itself, but it was without doubt a worthy walk. In one alcove we also encountered a family of manatees: two large adults and a calf, the largest of the two, whom Marlayna and Jaime affectionately dubbed “Fred” was pushing an orange around in the water trying to get a grip on it. We watched him struggle with the citrus, pushing it against our boats trying to get a bite, for about fifteen minutes or so until finally I used my river knife to cut the fruit in half and drop it back in the water. “Fred” immediately seized on the orange sucking in a whole half and gumming out the fruit before spitting out the peel much to everyone’s delight.

The next day was Saturday and at 10:30am our group began to congregate at Pete’s Pier to launch our boats at Crystal River and continue our adventure. The sky was blue and the water was clear as we set off to find the manatees. They did not disappoint as dozens of the gentle giants converged at the mouth of a small creek fed by the Three Sisters Springs. As we paddled past the manatees and snorkelers to explore the springs some of the more social creatures bumped our kayaks and even nibbled at the beard of a nearby tourist in a snorkel mask. The springs themselves were full of fish and warm, crystal clear water. There were also several manatees resting within the springs area. Pat, Annie and Eric decided to throw caution to the wind and swim with the manatees. With a water temperature considerably higher than the air temp, it seemed to be much easier getting into the water than it was to get out.

Having seen lots of manatees and paddled our way up and around the Crystal River area we paddled back to the boat ramp, loaded up and headed to our various camps for the evening. Jaime, Marlayna, Jennifer, Brannen and Cathy opted to utilize the afternoon to explore the nearby Homosasa Springs (Sorry I couldn’t remember where we launched from last year. I remembered once Brannen told me the next day, McCray’s). They had an enjoyable paddle and saw a few manatees, lots of birds and an island of monkeys!

The next morning was Sunday and we met again bright and early at the Weeki Wachee Springs park for more paddling fun. After setting the shuttle we were on our way down this exceptional stretch of river. Making our way through the slalom-like turns of the Weeki Wachee we got to enjoy, once again, the warm and beautiful blue spring waters. We met up with a smaller manatee who seemed to almost be playing tag with us as we passed him by. We later saw him drift past us as we enjoyed lunch on the shore and eventually we caught up with him again before reaching what is known as “The Blue Hole” where several manatees and a couple fishermen were hanging out, enjoying the day. The manatees of the Blue Hole were very friendly; demanding that all who approached pay attention to them. Jim even got sprayed by manatee mist as they surfaced for air right beside him. We had been told along the way that there was a “fish hospital” where dozens of manatees were lazing about including several pregnant cows and a few others that were under medical observation for injuries from boat propellers, but we missed this area presumably because it lay somewhere down the righthand fork of the river while we followed a leftward course.

Monday morning we all broke camp and started out for home. On the way, Pat, Annie, Jim, Katy, Brannen, Erica and I decided to make the most of the day with one last excursion before heading back to Georgia. We met at 9:30am at Itchetucknee Springs with high hopes for critter-spotting since in years past we’ve seen lots of otters, raccoons and even a herd of baby wild pigs with their parents on the banks of this lazy and pristine river. A local outfitter took care of the shuttle for us and we set off. The river was, of course, gorgeous and once again we had fantastic weather. We could not have asked for better the entire weekend. We saw a plethora of turtles as we meandered downstream. We even saw several very large red-headed woodpeckers and bunches of water birds, but the otters and piggies eluded us this time.

At the take out everyone packed up the gear, said their goodbyes, wished we could have stayed longer and set out for home. It was an excellent trip with a fantastic turnout. Everyone seemed to have a very nice time and we all got to see some of the best that Florida has to offer. I worried that this trip might be biting off a bit more than I could chew, but all in all I think it went pretty well for this first-time coordinator. Thanks so much to everyone who came on the trip and to those who gave me advice, tips and pointers that helped make this event happen! I look forward to paddling again with everyone very soon and can’t wait to see what kinds of critters we encounter on the MLK Weekend Manatee Paddle in years to come!