Every January for the last 28 years, Citrus County has commemorated the return of the sea cow -- also known as the Florida Manatee -- to their winter home with in a raucous two-day party.
Think of the Florida Manatee Festival as the Sunshine State's version of the round up, minus the cowboys. When the temperatures drop, the nearby Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge draws the largest herd of sea cows in the hemisphere. On the coldest days you can find more than 500 manatees huddled together near the the boardwalk of Three Sisters Springs.
Why do the sea cows come here? Citrus County, just north of St. Petersburg, has more than 70 natural springs which shoot a constant flow of 72-degree water. These mild conditions combined with the area's shallow water and an abundance of leafy green vegetation make this habitat the ideal winter haven for the chilled cows.
Getting a closer look at the manatee is a real adventure. Topside, kayakers clamor to view these endangered mammals gliding silently under their vessels. Taking one of the guided tours is not for the faint of heart. During peak season, you'll also be competing with splashing snorkelers and motorboats, which kick up a little wake.
If you don't mind cold water, you might prefer to snorkel with the manatees. Sure, you'll have to squeeze into a 7 millimeter wetsuit, but it's totally worth it. It's one of the few times when you can legally get this close to one of the world's largest and most gentle sea creatures.
Another way of checking out the sea cow in its natural environment is from the comfort of a glass-bottom pontoon. Boats aren't permitted to hover above the animals but may pass over them while journeying along the waterways. The manatee doesn't dart quickly across the ocean like a fish. Instead they move slowly, so there are many opportunities to float over a mother and her calf.
During the past four years, Citrus County has spearheaded an ambitious underwater clean-up effort, clearing invasive algae from the riverbed. Volunteers have scraped out the murky mess, which came from fertilizer runoff, returning the base to its original sandy state. Today, the scrubbed bottom makes it much easier to spot sea creatures including snapper, mullet and, of course, the popular sea cow.
Visitors looking to rustle up some manatee souvenirs at the festival don't have to go far. A seemingly limitless choice of artisans display their manatee-inspired crafts. Stainless-steel manatee lawn ornaments, anyone? The two-day celebration evokes memories of a distant summer which seems tantalizingly close under the the Florida sunshine.