South of Crystal River – February 6, 2013
People say Crystal River used to be clear. See the bottom anywhere clear. Like glass, they say. That’s a story now, the kind old timers rattle off at bars about when they were kids. No one has seem the bottom of the river for decades. But it is in the name, once descriptive, now reflective, crystal as in clear.
Canals. Dredging. Development. The river is still beautiful, but no one would call it crystal anymore. Blue, maybe. Sapphire, perhaps. But not Crystal.
Except for a few spots.
Three Sisters Spring looks like Eden, like a lost world, a place where the spring mouths still pump clear glass out of the aquifer. Catch the water before it flows far and you can see the bottom thirty feet away.
“This is how the whole river used to be,” people say.
Light shimmers off the sand like it’s made of gemstones. Turquoise, sapphire, crystal at seventy-two degrees, always seventy-two degrees. That is where the magic is. That’s why the manatees come.
They look like rocks when you see them. Giant spherical rocks. Gray and long. Rocks that rise up like balloons to the surface and slide open two big nostrils to breathe huffs of stale air. Then they sink down again. Sleeping on the bottom, moving so slow that algae covers the backs of the old ones.
They come for the seventy-two degrees, crowding the spring vents in winter like it’s a bonfire, nine-hundred pound giants rising and falling every few minutes as they wait out the cold days for Florida’s sun to heat the world again.
They look wise. Old and wise, like monks. Smooth grey skin wrinkled around the face, curved backs that remind you of an old man’s stooped figure. Each flipper looks like a smashed elephant foot, complete with tiny nails. Their tail is a long, sloping, circular wedge, a paddle, thick and unpolished like the rest of their body as if they were roughly cut from granite and not quite finished, except for their eyes that stare at you like black marbles, clear and dark, impossibly small against the giant stony body.
Long white gashes crisscross their backs. Some are sharp and clean, others twisted, jagged curves, all left over from boat propellers slicing across the surface. I never see a one without them. The scars seem a right of passage, an initiation into adulthood. The only ones with clean backs are the babies and only because they haven’t lived long enough.
But one of those scars is why this place still exists, why the last piece of the Crystal River is still crystal.
Three hundred houses could ring the springs. They’d sell for millions. But a boat hit a manatee and the man who owned the property was there to rescue it and saw a bit of humanity as blood spilled out of the open grey back.
“Buy it back from me,” he said.
It wasn’t easy. A tangle of federal, state, and local government, nonprofits, community groups, people writing checks, making phone calls, not giving up until they found a way to save this small piece of Eden, to leave it for the gentle giants and their scared backs, so that we’re not all just old timers one day, rattling off in a bar, telling kids that you used to see the bottom of Three Sisters Spring.