At 6:50 a.m., the half light of dawn was still minutes away. The Crystal River was shrouded in mist as the three pontoon boats eased away from the docks at Bird's Underwater Diving Center.
Our craft slowly motored south. Brown pelicans and anhingas perched on the trees in islets in the middle of the river. An osprey nested on a pole.
One boat headed for Kings Bay. The other two headed south for the Three Sisters Spring. Each boat carried about a dozen passengers. They came from Fort Lauderdale, Homestead, Tampa, Largo, Clearwater. All climbed out of warm beds and stepped into below 40-degree temperatures to spend a few hours with manatees.
Despite the cold, this was no surprise. This is the only place in the United States where people may legally swim with and touch the manatees that seek shelter from the cold in the constant 72-degree spring waters.
The mammals are at the center of a fierce debate between those who love, even idolize them, and those who see the manatees as obstacles to more pleasurable boating and more intense coastal development.
The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently made a controversial announcement that the agency may lower the manatee's classification from endangered to threatened.
Whichever, manatees are the big draw in Crystal River. Most of my fellow passengers, all dressed in wet suits, with diving glass, fins and snorkel, had splashed with the manatees before. It was new to me. But you can't fully appreciate the fuss over the thousand-pound creature until you've seen them up close.
Capt. Marty Senetra, 49, maneuvered the vessel down river for about 10 minutes. There was only silence at the houses that lined the canals. By the time we reached Three Sisters, the sky was faint blue streaked with white. The sun peeped over the treetops to the east. We had more than two hours to visit with the sea cows.
Veteran divers quickly hit the river in their rented yellow-green flippers. But with stories of another reporter's near drowning swirling in my head, I hesitated before leaving the boat.
My mask didn't fit - I'd picked up the kids size at the dive shop. After putting it on upside down, I spent about 10 minutes adjusting the straps and trying to get the glass to fit snugly over my nose. And, yes, I had to learn to breathe through my mouth.
After the other divers had reached the springs, I finally eased into the water and headed toward the roped-off sanctuary.
Times photographer Ron Thompson, a veteran diver, zipped past. I could swim but was relieved when I saw that some of my fellow divers were standing in the river. I soon learned what Thompson called my deadman's float - glass on, face down, breathing through my mouth and the snorkel. I kicked my flippers as they propelled me toward the entrance to Three Sisters.
With my head below water, all I could hear was my breathing and the high-pitched whine of the manatee as they communicated with each other. You hear them before you see them move submarinelike in search of food. Their size and their agility surprise you.
When one of the creatures brushed against my leg for the first time, my heart pounded, even though I knew manatees are playful, not predatory.
They have no enemies except man, yet they do us no harm. But the scars on their backs and tails provide evidence of our collective carelessness.
Helen Spivey of the Save the Manatee Club estimates that more than 90 percent of all the manatees in Crystal River are scarred.
You reach out and touch the manatee, and its gray hide resembles the bark of a tree. But it feels more like worn leather or velvet.
Near where I was swimming, Carol Grant, a scientific diver from Clearwater, had come with her camera equipment. So had her friend, Steve Dohring of Largo. Both spent the next few hours photographing the manatees and their scars.
They'll post the pictures on the Internet to raise public awareness about what boats can do to manatees. Last year in Florida, about 80 of the 396 manatees found dead were hit by boats.
Some fear that if the state loosens the rules and lists the manatee as threatened instead of endangered, it will result in more manatee deaths.
With my head underwater, watching their graceful movement in the swirling sand, I wanted badly to believe that future generations will have the same distinct pleasure.
Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is email@example.com.