How could you not adore the gentle manatee? They're chubby, sweet-faced and playful.
It was love at first sight for our young nature girl, who became instantly smitten with these aquatic mammals sometimes known as sea cows.
From the moment our 10-year-old saw her first video of a manatee smooshing its nose against the glass wall of its enclosure, we knew we were Florida-bound. The only real question was, where would we go to get the best look at these lovable but endangered creatures?
After a bit of research, it turned out that West Volusia in Central Florida was the place to be if we were going to encounter manatees in their natural habitat.
Located between Orlando and Daytona Beach, the West Volusia County Region encompasses 14 distinct communities along the St. Johns River and Interstate 4. With a quietly eclectic mix of attractions, restaurants and shops, this low-key area is refreshingly far removed from the frenzied pace of a theme-park vacation.
Our first stop was Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, a 1,052-hectare nature preserve bisected by the beautiful St. Johns River. Blue Spring is a favourite winter hangout for the hundreds of West Indian manatees that seek out its temperate waters.
Our arrival coincided with the first heavy rain the area had received in months, but we would not be deterred and our perseverance was rewarded almost immediately. Just a short stroll from the parking lot we stepped up to a viewing platform along the river and spotted a momma manatee with its newborn baby gliding alongside. Our daughter was enthralled and would have happily watched them frolic in the shallow waters all day.
And as if that wasn't enough, we soon spotted another young manatee in the same area pulling a beacon attached to its tail. We would later find out the beacon was tracking its every move after a period of rehabilitation from an injury.
Manatees have no natural predators but, sadly, humans are a constant threat. Fewer than 5,000 manatees are left in the wild around the southern U.S. and loss of habitat, pollution and collisions with boats are taking a heavy toll on the remainder of these gentle giants.
Adult manatees can grow up to 3 metres long, weigh more than 500 kilos and live up to 60 years, but scientists say natural and artificial dangers end the lives of many manatees before they reach their 10th birthday. Fortunately, manatee refuges like Blue Spring and organizations such as savethemanatee.org are doing their best to keep the remaining population healthy.
As we soon found out though, manatees aren't the only rare creatures to be spied in West Volusia. Our day at Blue Spring State Park also included a boat tour with St. Johns River Cruises, where we spotted more alligators and water-dwelling birds than we could have possibly imagined.
During the cruise we were introduced to Tick, the biggest gator on the St. Johns, and we spotted several of his mistresses and their tiny babies. We also encountered and photographed anhingas, American bitterns, limpkins, purple gallinules and a huge number of assorted herons.
The next day we took another short drive to a different stretch of the St. Johns River for a second boat tour, this time with the similarly named St. Johns River Eco Tours.
First though, we had just enough time to grab some lunch at the nearby Swamphouse Grill. Hoping to blend in with the locals, I ate the alligator quesadillas while my wife dined on frog's legs and our daughter stared at us in horror.
After our feed, it was time to hop on the boat. Admittedly, we were a little worried this tour would simply be a repeat of our earlier adventure (albeit with sunnier weather), but we were delighted to discover an entirely new section of this protected area and dozens of new birds and animals we had not seen earlier.
One of the highlights was spotting an osprey as it swooped past us to snatch up some fresh sushi and then land on a nearby branch to tuck in. We also bumped into our old friend Tick again, but decided against disturbing him too much out of respect for nature and a healthy fear of his massive jaws.
Unfortunately, there were no manatees to be found this day, but the next day we were heading south to SeaWorld in Orlando, where we were guaranteed a close encounter with the gentle giants. At first, we were unsure about viewing these free spirits in captivity, but then we read up on Seaworld's Animal Rescue Team and how they're working behind the scenes to save injured and sick manatees. Only those that can't be released back into the wild are kept safe in captivity.
Bypassing the extreme rollercoasters and other rides, we made a beeline to the manatee area and were thrilled to find you could literally get nose to nose with the rescued inhabitants in an underground viewing area. And in an exact re-enactment of the video that started our daughter's manatee crush, the largest of SeaWorld's resident sea cows kissed the glass wall with its adorable nose and created a picture perfect ending to our manatee quest.
NEED TO KNOW
Orlando International Airport is only a 30-minute drive from West Volusia County.
The Swamphouse Grill at Highbanks Marina in DeBary serves up adventurous local delicacies such as alligator, catfish and frog's legs. For something a little more elegant, Genuine Bistro in DeBary offers innovative cuisine, fine wines and do-it-yourself S'mores over an open flame.
The freshly renovated Holiday Inn Express in Orange City offers standard rooms from $99 US and a complimentary hot and cold breakfast to start your day. In Orlando, Loew's Royal Pacific Resort provides elegant accommodations starting at $369 for a standard king room.