While most people were rushing about on Christmas Eve to finish up last minute holiday shopping I was spending my morning immersed in the chilly 72 degree waters of Crystal River on a quest to find and swim with the endangered West Indian manatee. There are less than five thousand of these magnificent creatures left in the wild and each year they return to Florida’s springs seeking shelter from the cold winter temperatures. The biggest threat to the manatee’s survival is collision with motorboats, loss of habitat and cold weather.
Crystal River and King’s Bay have a year round permanent population of about 400 manatees. These gentle herbivores, sometimes called sea cows, average about ten feet in length and weigh upwards of over a thousand pounds. They are curious by nature and will often approach swimmers and snorkelers to investigate and interact with them.
My trip with River Ventures started at 6:00 a.m. with an outside air temperature hovering near 30 degrees. After watching a short informational video about how to interact with the manatees our small group of three donned our wetsuits and boarded the boat that would take us to Three Sisters Spring. Our boat left the dock just as the sun began to caress the water with its first rays of light.
In winter a fine mist rises off of the warmer waters of the river and springs in response to the cooler air temperatures. In the sweltering heat of summer nothing can quite prepare you for that initial cold shock of entering a Florida spring, but in winter its almost like sliding into a warm bath. Our Captain anchored the boat right outside of the manatee sanctuary (ours was the first boat to arrive) and we were immediately met by the manatees.
Upon first seeing several of these creatures up close the size of them is can be somewhat intimidating. It makes one very glad that their diet consists of plants and not people. I followed the Captain’s instructions and entered the water quietly so as not to startle these gentle giants. He should have been more concerned with them startling me as I was immediately bumped by one that appeared out of the murky water. I calmed myself and gathered my bearings while I floated in the midst of several of them.
Once everyone was in the water we headed away from the boat and out into the river. I was caught off guard again as a massive manatee swam up beneath me. According to all reports this year has had record numbers of manatees in the bays and springs. I believe it. I almost couldn’t put my hand out without touching one.
People tell me that manatees feel like an elephant (they are distantly related,) but never having touched an elephant I can’t compare. The manatee’s skin feels rough, leathery and is dotted with hair here and there. Some manatees have algae on their skin while others are covered in barnacles. The baby manatees seem to have much smoother skin and all of the manatees have whiskers around their mouths. In addition to this they have toenails on their flippers.
We followed out Captain/Guide to the mouth of a channel between two sanctuaries. This is also the location of the Florida Department of Wildlife’s Manatee Cam. From here he told us that we would be swimming up the channel into an area known as the “keyhole” where three springs poured forth (the three sisters) and where we would find a sea of manatees.
So off we went against a strong current and I was nearly run over by three large manatees coming out of the channel. Some rules in life can apply to almost any situation; always yield right of way to the larger vehicle. I paused for a few seconds until the coast was clear and started up the channel again until we were in the central spring. I took a second to look around in the clearer water of the spring and realized I was surrounded by manatees of all sizes.
Our first visitor was a very eager juvenile manatee who was very interested in checking us out. He practically demanded belly rubs and would nudge us if we stopped. Two other manatees nosed in for their rubs and I began to lose track of who was who. While we floated on the surface with our manatee entourage I took a second to look deeper into the water and could see dozens more dozing on the floor of the spring.
I started to swim to the second spring and was nearly lifted out of the water by a huge manatee who I dubbed Mr. Wrinkles. He swam up under me and lifted me up while moving forward and them performed a roll so I could pet his belly. By my best guess Mr. Wrinkles must be very old and used to getting what he wants. A little while later I was videoing some other manatees and he hooked my arm with his flipper and spun me around so that I would pet him some more.
I’m not sure how long we stayed in the head springs but Mr. Wrinkles lifted me up at least three more times. Junior came back to find me and gave me a couple of very deliberate kisses on my mask and nose. If it weren’t for needing to eat people food and pruning up so bad that I looked like Mr. Wrinkles I could’ve stayed in the head springs forever, but eventually we swam back out to the main channel to find dozens of snorkelers and several more boats had arrived.
We made our way back to our boat to discover at least five manatees playing and chewing on the anchor line. Captain Chris said that they love chewing on the rope and he’ll find them on it nearly every time. We could’ve stayed longer but with the number of people in the water and the still very cold air temperatures we decided to wrap up our trip on a positive note and head back to the dock.
As adventures go this one was five star and our tour company, River Ventures, was top notch and came highly recommended. They provide transportation, gear and wetsuits all for one low price with no hidden fees like other companies. Swimming with the manatees was one of those things that I have always wanted to do and I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present than to be able to interact with these amazing creatures.
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