CRYSTAL RIVER — Most individuals outside of Florida will rarely, if ever, have an opportunity to see a manatee. With a population of about 5,000, the West Indian manatee is not often found in the wild — unless, of course, one happens to live in west-central Florida.
Manatee season, between Nov. 15 and the end of March, is the time of year when manatees seek out warmer waters, particularly along the coast of Hernando and Citrus counties. Area rivers such as Weeki Wachee, Homosassa and Kings Bay become winter homes to hundreds of the mammals, offering a warm habitat to survive the cold.
"Manatees just love our rivers because they are spring fed and always 72 degrees," said Cindi Fein, communication/public relations coordinator for the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce.
For humans, it provides a rare opportunity to view these gentle creatures in the wild. For Crystal River, it is an opportunity to celebrate the manatee with a weekend full of entertainment and manatee education.
The two-day 26th annual Florida Manatee Festival kicks off Saturday in downtown Crystal River. The event, presented by the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club of Crystal River and the city of Crystal River, includes a fine art show, a craft show, manatee education, entertainment, vendors, food and children's activities.
Returning to this year's event are the popular manatee boat tours, which will be offered between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday from Kings Bay Park.
Musical entertainment will include the Tampa-based Mighty Mongos, local favorite Cajun Dave and the Dixie Swingers, Bob and Sheila Everhart and the Susan Smith Band.
New this year will be tours of the nearby Three Sisters Springs, offered Saturday only, at no cost. A free shuttle from downtown to the springs will be available.
Fein also said that at 2 p.m. Saturday there will be an announcement by the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory regarding the naming of the Manatee Nebula.
The observatory will have displays and photos of the nebula, which is about 18,000 light-years away and detectable only by a radio telescope. The displays will offer proof of the nebula's physical resemblance to a manatee, including the appearance of arc-like "scars," similar to those many manatees bear from boat propellers that have gotten too close.