Here are some of our photos from the trip.
1) Unfortunately, the coastal drive east from Ft. Walton Beach to Mexico Beach is just a continuous line of tourist traps. Condos, swim wear shops, fast food restaurants, go-kart tracks and the like. Fortunately, once you get to Port St. Joe all the over-developments ends and some of the natural beauty of Florida's Gulf Coast starts to become visible. The highlight of this area is the quaint town of Apalachicola and nearby stunning beauty of Saint George Island. We paid for an overnight parking permit the in the campground of St George Island State Park and then went for a long sunset walk on the pristine white beach.
2) We ended our beach walk as the sun set and just as the mosquitos and sand fleas started looking for dinner..
3) The next day we drove around the curve of Florida's Gulf Coast and drove straight to the small town of Crystal River where we checked into an equally small RV park that was right on the river. In town we found a visitor center with information about the local superstars - the manatees. Central Florida is filled with natural springs where fresh water bubbles up from underneath the limestone that makes up the state's bedrock. Water in these springs is a constant 68 degrees. In the winter, when the water in the Gulf of Mexico starts to drop the manatees flock to the fresh water springs because of the (relatively) warm water there. ...and thus was born a winter tourist activity - swimming with wild manatees!
4) The next day we drove to nearby Homosassa Springs where we joined a small boat (four tourists, plus two guides) to snorkel with manatees in Homosassa Spring. The gentle giants generally just hang out on the bottom but they have to surface every five to ten minutes to breath fresh air. Snorkelers aren't allowed to approach the manatees but if you are calm and quiet they are quiet curious, especially the young manatees, so they will often come to you.
5) If a manatee does come to you then you can touch them (one hand only!) and swim alongside them. They are very slow moving and surprisingly smooth to the touch. They are often covered in algae and seem to enjoy having the algae scratched off their skin.
6) An adult manatee is big - maybe 12 feet long and weighing as much as a small car. The calves are about the same size as an adult human so it was fun to interact with them just since they aren't so physically overwhelming. They are also more curious and so they stick around instead of just immediately swimming back down to the bottom after taking a breath.
7) The sunlight and the waves combined to make curtains of light that flickered across the manatees when they were near the surface. Pretty!
8) 68 degrees is warm to a manatee but chilly to us. We rotated between getting in the wate with the manatees and climbing back into the boat to warm up.
9) After the youngsters about half an hour hanging out with us the adults became more interested and would stick around as well. This made for moments where you would find yourself surrounded by manatees and would have to frantically work to stay the required arm's length distance away from them. "Riding" (even just touching a single manatee with both hands) carries as stiff penalty since the manatees are a protected animal.
10) This is a lousy photo but it does show how close the manatees would get to both the boat and the swimmers (right in between in this case!).
11) I know it is anthropomorphizing but the youngest of the manatees seemed sad when we climbed aboard the boat for the last time. Getting a chance to swim with the manatees was a wonderful holiday gift and we felt very good about the guides and how they balanced protecting these animals with the education that comes with providing ethical encounters with wild animals.
12) After swimming with the manatees we drove over to Tarpon Springs to check out the history of sponge diving in Florida. From there we started back north but then took a detour to visit the old fishing village of Cedar Key. This area is a throw back to what the panhandle coast looked like before the developers turned it into condo alley. It was so relaxing to walk on a natural coastline and go out onto the small piers originally built for the old fishing fleet but now home to pelicans and seagulls.
13) We got take-out from a restaurant and rented a little waterfront cabin (so we could sleep in a real bed after a few nights on the air mattress in the back of the Explorer.) We watched the sunset over the Gulf while eating our take-out on the cabin's little porch. Not a bad way to end such a great day!
14) Vegetarian cuisine in central Florida mainly involves french fries and cole slaw.
15) Another colorful sunset!.
16) Our final day was mainly just the drive back to Shalimar but we did make a side trip inland to visit Torreya State Park on the banks of the Apalachicola River. This state park is built on the grounds of an old plantation though, sadly, they downplayed the truth of that history. We toured the Gregory house, the old plantation home, we walked down the bluff to the bank of river and we hiked to see the endangered torreya trees that provide the name for the park. A little nature and history break to split up the day's drive back.
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