Earlier in July, I had the experience of swimming with wild manatees in Crystal River, Florida. It was easily one of the most amazing and unforgettable trips of my life. There is nothing like seeing these under-appreciated animals in their natural habitat.
Crystal River, nicknamed “Manatee Haven,” is a city located inside Citrus County, Florida (which is also home to Homosassa Springs). Our boat captain took our group out on the river in a pontoon boat to look for the manatees. Our group consisted of me, my friend Suzi, her parents, a couple that looked about my age, and two middle-aged parents and their five children. We were encouraged to rent wet suits because the water was said to be very cold; my friends and I were some of the only people to decline, but I did get a snorkel and mask.
As our boat started up, the guide began going over an introduction. It was hard to hear her over the roar of the motor and the yammering of the kids. For this reason, I’m not sure how much, if anything, she covered regarding proper treatment of the manatees. I think that this is a very important thing to discuss. Many times we may innocently interact with animals in a way that we see as okay, while the animal sees it as threatening or upsetting.
We entered a protected area where the boat had to go at idle speed while looking for telltale little bubbles on the surface. The guide explained how many manatees are injured by propeller blades every year and that these injuries leave white scars.
We spied a mama and baby manatee and stopped the boat. I hopped in and found the water wasn’t THAT cold. It was no worse than swim practice first thing in the morning – the type of thing your body gets used to quickly. My companions agreed with me. The guide told us that we had to be careful not to touch the bottom and stir up the mud and algae, or else the manatees would be camouflaged and we wouldn’t be able to see them. The kids disregarded this rule and kicked up tons of muck, which had the added drawback of scaring the manatees and causing them to swim away. So we hopped back on the boat to search for more. We found a huge one and dropped anchor in the area. The protocol was to simply swim alongside the manatees; if a manatee finds you affable enough, he’ll hang around. If not, he will glide off faster than you think something of that size could move.
The water here was rather muddy, and shallow enough that swimming while keeping my feet off the bottom was not an easy task. It makes for a nice workout! We could see the big creature moving through the water, so I snorkeled along looking for him. I tried to swim slow enough that I wouldn’t plow into him, but it was so hard to see at that area of the river. Suddenly, a big tail appeared!
I swam alongside the manatee and he didn’t seem to mind me, but he was definitely going on about his business. I noticed the telltale white scars all along him and felt bad for him. I also noticed that his back was covered in green algae. After a while, he disappeared in the cloudy water. I spotted some bubbles near a pier and thought those might be more manatees; our guide had the same idea, so I followed her. Sure enough, a pregnant manatee – resembling a giant gray boulder – was hanging out over there in a very shallow, weed-choked area among the pilings.
I tried to back up and give the manatee some space. The rest of the group were off swimming in another area of the river without manatees. I was thankful they didn’t want to come this far, to tell you the truth. I don’t think the manatee would’ve wanted to chill for as long with five very rambunctious children jumping around her.
The manatee’s skin was lightly textured, except for the slimy spaces where the algae was. I could see that it was covered in white scars as well. I felt terrible for her and wondered if tour boats like ours, idle speed or no, were contributing to injuries like this. Just then, one of the kids and the mother came over and I think the manatee began to feel a little crowded. When she looked like she was heading into shallower water, I figured she wanted us to leave her be. We swam away, but the mother bragged later that her son was able to “ride” on one. At this point, no one had said that was against any rules, but it didn’t sound like a good idea to me.
We made a few more stops before arriving at what looked like a wide, deep stream, full of boulders on the bottom, leading back through the woods. The guide said we would be swimming through this creek into a blue lagoon at the end. Based on how much water was over my 5 feet 6 inches when I stood on the bottom, I’d say this creek was about six and a half feet deep, but you could see straight through to the bottom. There was no muck here, only white sand. I could see through to the trees framing the creek on either side. Tropical-colored fish swam in and out of the tree roots, and sun shone through breaks in the heavy canopy. Some of the boulders were so large and so high that I scraped my foot on them as I passed by. I believe we were heading into what is known as Three Sisters Spring.
The lagoon at the end of the creek was very large – and positively crystal clear. Sun shone straight through the break in the trees into the water, lighting up the bottom, where the sand was pure white and very few boulders took up the space. Schools of fish swam right by us, and I saw a large crab scuttling along the bottom.
We swam to the left and passed an area 20 to 30 feet deep with what looked like a huge underwater tree growing out of it. Someone said they heard this was the source of the spring. It would not surprise me; I accidentally swallowed some of the water and it was cleaner and crisper than any bottled water I’ve ever tasted.
At the very far edge of the lagoon, where the water was perhaps 15 feet deep, a tagged manatee slumbered at the bottom. She blended right in with the rocks. The guide told us she had lost her mother and so was being tracked with the tag, which was some type of floating device attached to her tail. She was huge and bore the telltale white marks across her face. The guide asked us to let her sleep, which of course, we did. (I don’t think the children could swim that deep or even notice that she was there; if they did, they left her and the tag alone.) I will never forget this lagoon. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
On the way back, we spotted one more manatee. This manatee was happily munching on weeds by the shore; he grabbed them in his snout, pulled them out and chomped away. We got into the water and headed over. I was supremely sorry that I had used up all the photos on my camera, because this was one of the most adorable things I had ever seen. I got up close to him long enough to hear him munching and see his whiskery snout waving around in the air with weeds hanging out of it. At that point he didn’t seem to care at all that we were hanging out with him. When more people came over, we left so as not to crowd him. I heard the guide order a child to stop riding the manatee again though. What does a guy have to do to get a peaceful meal around here!
We all left positively amazed by the experience. It was one of the top 10 coolest things I have ever done. It has helped me gain a new appreciation for this misunderstood creatures, and see firsthand how they live. On the other hand, these are wild animals, and they are endangered. It’s not like a dolphin swim I went on where there were just two people to each dolphin. If everyone is respectful and avoids harassment (as long as those guidelines are made clear), then you have an excellent learning opportunity. But the fact that we had a group of 15 in the water at once chasing after just one or two manatees at a time bothers me. It seems like too large of a group for any one tour guide to have adequate control over. I was also saddened to see the boat propeller scars on every manatee we came across. I guess not everyone observes the boat speed requirements.
You can learn more about wildlife protection laws that protect manatees, including guidelines for swimming, boating and an ADORABLE picture of a manatee face, at this link: FPL Environmental Education: Manatee Overview. You will also find links with guidelines for the protection of other Florida creatures on the lefthand side of the page. Protecting wildlife and their natural environments is something that is very important to me.
You can find many companies that offer manatee tours in the Crystal River online. The rates are very affordable. If you are concerned about how the tour groups interact with the manatees, don’t hesitate to ask about guidelines and how the tour operator ensures that the manatees are not harassed. For the most part, I feel our tour group (Aquaimages) did an okay job with such a large group. However, I would’ve liked to have a briefing on proper treatment of the manatees prior to getting on the boat. I think that the children were out of control at some points, and however minor their interactions with the manatees may have seemed to them, a briefing of the rules could have helped a great deal. It also would’ve helped me as for a time there I wasn’t certain of my own behavior (e.g., swimming alongside the manatees, lightly laying a hand on one as he passed me by). I think leaving wild animals to their own natural habitats and behaviors is imperative to enjoying their presence in the years to come.