Paddling with the manatees

Head to Daytona Beach, Fla., and chances are the only nature experience you’re seeking is the opportunity to lie back on the hard-as-concrete, sun-drenched beach while the kids splash in the water.

But just 10 miles away, there is a little of bit of nature heaven.

The 175-acre Spruce Creek Nature Preserve in Port Orange offers the rare chance to bask in Old Florida splendor and commune with manatees.

Seeking warmer waters as the winter breezes cool the shoreline, these imperiled mammals swim upstream into Spruce Creek. Rent a kayak or plop the kids into a canoe for a close up look at these sweet and harmless animals.

When I visited in the spring, I wasn’t expecting a family of manatees to join us on our kayaking trip. But Mama, Papa and Baby manatee swam alongside us for nearly 20 minutes as we paddled down the peaceful waters.

As we steered around these big galoots, it was easy to see why these trusting animals are at the mercy of the humans who encroach upon their waters. They swam lazily, sticking their pig-like snoots above the water line every few minutes to take a breath. Sometimes they came up next to the kayaks. Sometimes they came up underneath them. Had we been in a motor boat with a power engine and propeller, they might have gone the way of so many of their relatives.

But beware: manatees are not the only creatures haunting this throwback to Old Florida. The place also is home to alligators. Lots of them. Thus, Jill Williams, owner of Cracker Creek Canoeing, the public-private nonprofit that rents canoes and kayaks at the preserve (www.oldfloridapioneer.com, (386) 304-0778), offers sobering words for parents of squirmy kids:"It is better to be on Spruce Creek than in Spruce Creek.”

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