Most of the country laughs at Floridians when we mention our winter, but despite the sneering and eye-rolling, the Sunshine State does, indeed, see a distinct period of cold weather – at least the likelihood thereof.
Spoiled as we are, most Floridians typically dread December-February, as this is when we're most likely to see our lowest temperatures.
Upside? This is also when we, and all who visit us from icy northern latitudes, are most likely to see those lovable and ever-lethargic marine mammals we call manatees. With winter weather dropping water temperatures and blasting the coastal shallows with frequent bouts of strong wind, manatees seek refuge by packing themselves into rivers, creeks and canals.
Click image to see photos of Homosassa River
Basically, any coastal artery will provide shelter from the often brutal conditions that pummel the shallow grass flats where the gentle sea cows spend the warmer months. However, the spring-fed rivers of Florida's Nature Coast region offer particularly attractive environments, as the warm water percolating from the Florida aquifer keeps the scene toasty during the year's harshest months.
Crystal River gets most of the attention, as a cluster of springs sit within easy reach of tour boats and private vessels. Options include snorkeling for an up-close encounter with these gentle creatures, or just viewing from above through the clear water.
A few years ago, I contacted one of the area's most accomplished guides, Capt. William Toney, about chartering his boat for a private river cruise. Toney suggested we try the Homosassa River, whose spring-fed headwaters adjacent to the namesake state park attract loads of manatees, but considerably less traffic than Crystal River.
Toney's advice was right on target. Nothing against Crystal River – I've done that route, too, and had a fine time. However, my family and I have come to appreciate the Homosassa's less crowded scene, along with the 30-minute idle up river – a pleasantly relaxing trip that always offers a diversity of wildlife viewing options.
Complementing the morning's manatee cruise, Capt. Toney returns back downriver, past his launch at MacRae's Marina, and then continues a couple of miles farther to one of the private islands to which he has access. Here, we enjoy an unforgettable Homosassa tradition – a camp style shore lunch consisting of fried fish (usually locally-caught speckled trout), hush puppies with homemade guava jelly, baked beans and coleslaw.
Capt. Toney builds a driftwood fire to keep his guests cozy until the food's ready and he even plucks a few handfuls of oysters from the dock pilings to roast over the coals. Soon as the shells pop open, the tasty shellfish are ready to eat with a dab of hot sauce.
Well, my mouth is now watering so I'll stop here and just offer this advice: The colder it gets, the tighter the manatees will gather around the springs. Warmer days still offer plenty of sightings, but they'll be somewhat scattered.
For Homosassa manatee cruises, fishing trips and shore lunches, contact Capt. William Toney through www.homosassainshorefishing.com.