CRYSTAL RIVER, FL (WCSC) - In the early morning hours thick fogs blankets Florida's Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge as a boat carries a handful of people from across the country to the spot where a rare species congregates.
Within minutes, the boat arrives and the eager visitors yank on wet suits and snorkeling gear.
One by one, they ease into the water kept at a constant 72 degrees by warm natural springs.
Instantly, a slow moving, gray mass emerges from a distance.
It is a Florida manatee and soon others join it to inspect the humans that have just arrived.
"I've seen a ton of pictures you kind of know what you think you're going to see, " said Alefiyah Mesiwala of Washington, D.C. "But it's a completely different experience to actually have one come and approach you."
During the winter months hundreds of manatees flock to this natural hot tub to keep warm.
The plant-eating, gentle mammals are distantly related to elephants and can weigh over 3000 pounds.
Through the years, the Florida manatee has encountered immense hurdles because of human activity.
"Manatees face a lot of challenges, their habitat is shrinking, their grass beds are ripped up by boats and they have less food sources today than ever before," said Bird's Underwater tour guide Chris Senetra.
Speeding boats also often strike these slow moving creatures.
"It actually makes you appreciate how important it is to protect how they (manatees) live," said Mesiwala of swimming with the manatees. "You know, to be mindful of how we live so that we can actually allow them to live in their environment."
The best time to swim with Florida manatees in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is from October through March.