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Out-of-this-world fun

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Manatees invade Crystal River

By Eryn Worthington

CRYSTAL RIVER — Manatees received the memo this weekend. They lounged in the spring-fed waters of King’s Bay and Three Sisters Springs as visitors snapped numerous photos during the two-day event featuring crafts, fine arts and food vendors from all across the country.

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Celebrating 26 years of the beloved marine mammal, thousands of visitors and residents adventured to the Florida Manatee Festival at Three Sisters Springs and the historic business district of Crystal River to commemorate the local celebrities.

On the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, shuttle buses escorted visitors to Three Sisters Springs to view the manatees in their natural winter-home environment from the recently built walkway. Once arriving, educational booths, crafts and music welcomed visitors to the springs.

“The main reason to have Three Sisters Springs open to the public is to enhance the education experience during the Florida Manatee Festival,” said visitor services specialist Ivan Vicente. “At noon, we have already seen a thousand people here. We hope to see another thousand more.”

Educating the public is exactly what they did, as a Manatee Nebula was unveiled. Through a radio telescope that moves on Earth, a set of telescopes spans from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands, creating a single array 5,000 miles long. Tania Burchell, a radio astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia, described the nebula to the audience before the unveiling.

“This nebula is completely invisible,” Burchell said. “We look at the invisible universe. There is a whole universe out there broadcasting in radio waves. The stuff you are picking up on your radios, the universe is doing as well. You have to know exactly how to look for them and where to look for them. That is what we did with this nebula. It took a year to make this image. It is huge. It spans 700 light years across. If you could see it with your eyeball it would be four-full moons big across the night sky.”

The Manatee Nebula had been viewed by only 20 people in the nation before Saturday. Nebulas are never named as they are invisible to the human eye. However, due to a director’s assistant dying wish, they nicknamed the nebula.

“When the images came through to our director, the director’s assistant — who was a big manatee fan — said ‘Ah, it’s a manatee’,” Burchell said. “She loved manatees. So I spent the last year crusading to get this nicknamed. As radio astronomers, we have never nicknamed anything that we have made. Because they are invisible and didn’t think anyone would care. But she really cared.”

The Manatee Nebula will be on display at the Visitor’s Center on King’s Bay drive. (See photos at http://www.nrao.edu/pr/2013/w50/)

Back at the Florida Manatee Festival, attendees, children and pets partook in the festivities along Citrus Avenue.

Waiting for longer than an hour in line for the boat tour, Michael and Louise Amarietti from Polk County enjoyed their first experience at the festival.

“We thought we would drive up for the day to see the manatees,” Louise Amarietti said smiling. “We had never been here and had always heard about the festival. We are waiting to take the boat out to see what all of this hoopla is about.”

Manning their 100 percent recycled glass booth, sisters Amy Sharkey and Fanny Hautau from Dunnellon marveled at the size of the festival.

“This is our third year here,” Fanny said. “The crowd is great. Usually, we are on the other side of festival. But we thought we would try over here by the water this year.”

They were selling handmade-glass yard and garden ornaments.

Throughout the festival, remarks could be heard as people commented on the beautiful temperatures for the weekend. They remembered freezing temperatures a few years ago that hampered the festival.

The Florida Manatee Festival is hosted and organized by the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Clubs of Citrus County and the city of Crystal River, with sponsorship from a number of local companies and organizations.

The festival, which has vendors on both sides of U.S. 19 and Citrus Avenue, runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today. Cost is $3 for adults, and children younger than 12 are free.

WHAT: Florida Manatee Festival.
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20.
ADMISSION: $3; children 12 and younger admitted free.
WHERE: Downtown Crystal River (U.S. 19 at Citrus Avenue).
PARKING: Bus shuttle service from Crystal River Mall parking lot round trip — $1.
TOURS: Boat tours: $10; children 12 and younger admitted free. Three Sisters Springs is not open Sunday.

Call Chronicle reporter Eryn Worthington at 352-563-5660, ext. 1334, or eworthington@chronicleonline.com.