The city of Ocala's Discovery Science Center could not have picked a better day to launch a new program, Explore Florida's Wonders.
The Wednesday outing for 12 middle-school-age students and three chaperones to swim with manatees in Kings Bay in Crystal River took place on a record-setting day.
According to Ivan Vicente, a visitor services specialist at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Complex, staffers from the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge conducted an aerial survey of manatees, with 453 counted along a route stretching from the Cross Florida Barge Canal south to the Homosassa River.
That number included a record 212 manatees inside Three Sisters Springs Manatee Sanctuary in Crystal River.
Opportunities for youngsters to have outdoor educational and recreational experiences is the premise behind the science center's new program. According to center assistant Melissa Townsend, the goal is to provide opportunities on off-school days about once per quarter.
Marion County school children were off Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and Tuesday and Wednesday for teacher in-service days.
"We want to offer recreational experiences so the students see things they wouldn't see otherwise," Townsend said.
The center made arrangements with Bird's Underwater, a dive center that offers manatee snorkel tours, guided dives and more. As the students crowded into Bird's combination office, showroom and staging area, they received wetsuits and thus began a frenzy of wriggling and giggling.
Most found the best way to get in the suit was to recline on the carpet so as not to fall over while pulling on the snug fitting garment.
Everyone watched a video by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that gave a history of the area's many sanctuaries and outlined the rules of engagement. First and foremost: passive interaction.
The children learned that the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1983 for the protection of the endangered West Indian Manatee and preserves habitat in Kings Bay as well as natural springs that provide critical habitat each winter.
Captains Chris Senetra and Donna Apple then ushered the group onboard two pontoon boats. It wasn't planned, but the boys boarded one boat and the girls another.
As the vessels moved slowly across the bay, two dolphins herded fish in a frenzied, splashing riot of motion.
Austin Cutter, 11, who attends Ocala Springs Elementary, said he just moved here and was excited about the adventure ahead.
"We didn't have any family to have fun with in New Hampshire," he said of the move to Ocala.
At the mouth of The Keyhole, an aptly named area delineated by buoys and ropes, the boats anchored and children spilled quietly into the water.
One large manatee glided silently past, far below. A smaller one, with gnarled skin and gentle eyes, seemed to want to be with the youngsters, lingering for quite some time. In all, five manatees moved over King Spring inside The Keyhole, delighting the youngsters. So did the monster tarpon, with sunlight flashing off their bodies, along with schools of mullet and plenty of snook, snapper and sheepshead.
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