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Wild Encounter

Chris Simms and his friends found the perfect way to cap off their Wild Adventures, thanks to Native Vacations in Crystal River and the wonderfully gentle animal known as the manatee


Searching for manatees in the Crystal River waters brought Chris Simms and his friends closer together

The black-clad figures slid noiselessly out of the stream running from Three Sisters Springs into an inconspicuous bend of the Crystal River. There was a handful of kayakers and boaters in the area, but little that disturbed the peacefulness of the morning here in Citrus County, Florida. Nearby boaters trailed their toes in the water, watching a cormorant sun his wings.

The tranquility of the moment, however, was short-lived.

See, here's the thing: Underneath the wetsuits and behind the snorkels of those swimmers spilling out of the springs were your average, ordinary teenagers. And, as we all know, teenagers are rarely quiet for long. Soon enough their faces came out of the water, they clambered onto the waiting pontoon boots and the chatter began, most of it directed at the smiling blonde man in the extra-tall wetsuit.

This was the third leg of the Chris Simms' Wild Adventures program, and the man at the center of attention was, of course, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms. The other swimmers were guests of his from The Children's Home in Tampa, an organization that has grown close to his heart during his four-plus years in Florida.

"These are some of our less fortunate children in Florida, and they've become friends of mine," said Simms. "This is just a very good group of kids. I kind of found a liking towards them during my rookie year, when we visited to carve pumpkins. I've had a great time with them. They seem so pure at heart, and I wanted to continue to do things with them."

After getting close to an impressive collection of felines at Big Cat Rescue and learning about a broad array of wildlife at the Lowry Park Zoo – both in Tampa – the Wild Adventures crew took the next step on Thursday and sought a more direct animal encounter. The inspired choice was Crystal River and its opportunity to swim with Florida manatees, in this case specifically through a tour provided by the knowledgeable and charitable folks at Native Vacations.

After starting Wild Adventures with the two local trips, Simms found an ambitious way to cap the second year of a program that combines two groups for which he has a special fondness, kids and animals. After the 90-minute trip up to Citrus County, but before the tour actually got underway, Simms said his intention was to get the boys and girls from The Children's Home "out of their normal, every-day routine," to spark their interest and get them talking about new experiences.

Judging from the excited chatter on the boats after the swim up to the Three Sisters Springs, that mission was accomplished. And the trip to the springs was merely an interlude between two stops that were more specific to the day's purpose – actual, in-water encounters with the gentle giants that call these waterways home.

During winter months, the Three Sisters Spring mouth is a good spot for manatee encounters, as they seek the more constant water temperatures of the area, especially in the morning. In fact, this part of Crystal River as well as King's Bay, where the tour began, is teeming with hundreds of manatees during the colder months, when the gulf drops below the 68-degree threshold that they can tolerate. In the warmer months, the manatees scatter to their hearts' desires, sometimes leaving only a few dozen in the tour's region. Still, they were there in the water on Wednesday, and the Native Vacations tour guides found them.

In fact, the tour was only a few minutes old when the three boats anchored in King's Bay in order to let Simms and the kids get in the water. Though they were instructed by video as to how to spot the manatees, the visitors from Tampa still needed some help finding the scattered marine mammals. When they did, the water was shallow and clear enough to allow a very personal encounter.

Later, after the side trip to the springs, the group spotted another manatee in a deeper body of water and anchored for a second lengthy encounter. This docile creature was slowly going about getting a meal from the bottom of the river, coming up between bites to get a breath. It seemed to pop up in a slightly new spot each time, leading to some rather abrupt and happy meetings. Simms never managed to get close enough to touch one of the manatees, but several of the kids did, leading to endless bragging according to the quarterback.

"This was a true wild encounter, which is definitely a very rare occurrence," said Simms. "It was a great time just getting out here and being able to play around, have fun in the water, but at the same time get close to a real manatee and get to touch it."

The Florida manatees are very social creatures, and though many of them have scars and other injuries from boat mishaps, they are friendly with humans. They even enjoy being petted and scratched, and will sometimes roll over to get their bellies rubbed. Many of the manatees in the Crystal River area weigh in the neighborhood of 1,200 pounds; the one Simms' group encountered in the deep water was probably 800-900 pounds.

Despite the manatees' well-deserved reputation for gentleness, the Wild Adventures kids were of a mixed mind when it came to the prospect of an encounter. A few were a bit timid to get into the water at first, though most warmed to the idea a few hours into the trip. One of the girls on the trip, Michelle, summed up her pre-tour knowledge of manatees thusly: "I know that I'm scared of them, and they're big."

Most of the kids were eager and unafraid right from the beginning, however. Angelique, for instance, insisted she would approach the manatees because, well, "I haven't felt one before."

One of the younger and smaller boys (most of the children on the trip cannot be identified for security reasons) was particularly ambitious, the first to try out his snorkel gear, the first to enter the water at King's Bay and the first to swim off towards the springs. He was the lucky tourist near which the manatee in deeper water surfaced close enough to touch.

Simms had paddled a few feet off before that final encounter, but he was thrilled to see his young friend experience a once-in-a-lifetime meeting. In fact, the Buccaneer quarterback was smiling most of the day, watching the Wild Adventures kids enjoy an outing quite unlike most of their days.

"Hopefully they learn a thing or two while they're out here and experience something new," said Simms. "More than anything, we just had fun today. It was a good day of just being in the water and having fun.

The 2007 Wild Adventures program wrapped up with Thursday's trip to Crystal River. Next year's series could go anywhere wild animals are involved, though Simms had a feeling he might be back in touch with the manatees next year.

"It was a great year for the Wild Adventures, it really was," said Simms. "We had some…well, Wild Adventures. It's always a great experience for me; hopefully it is for the kids, too. We've had great fun the last two years and hopefully we can continue doing this."

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