As I slipped into the water, the cold took my breath away, but soon the wetsuit did its job and I felt better. At first, I couldn’t see anything due to disturbed silt, but then a large form materialized in front of me and there I was, just feet from an adult manatee. I stopped a few feet away and watched as it swam away. Our guide gestured for me to swim toward him where a female baby (still huge) manatee was loitering. Again, I stopped short and waited, but this time she swam over to me. I reached out with one hand and rubbed the skin of her back. It felt lumpy and rough and had a light growth of algae. I guess she enjoyed it because next she showed be her pale belly to rub. Repeatedly she came up to me wanting attention. By far, it was the most intimate wild animal encounter I have ever had.
Each winter Florida’s manatees congregate around springs and power plant discharges to stay warm. This provides a great opportunity to view them in large numbers and this January several of us visited Crystal River to snorkel with the large aquatic mammals.
Adult manatees average 9 to 10 feet of length and weigh 800 to 1200 pounds, however they can reach 13 feet and 3500 pounds. That’s a lot of critter to swim next to! Fortunately, in spite of their size, manatees are gentle and graceful.
Our trip began at the American Pro Diving Center with an educational video on manatees and how to interact with them in the water. Once we squeezed into our wetsuits and had all the snorkel gear loaded, we headed out on a pontoon boat for the ride to Jurassic Springs.
There were over two dozen manatees gathered in and around the spring including the little she-calf. Some were still sleeping and others just moving through. They let out little squeaks as a form of communication and one of my boat-mates even caught the sound on her recorder. I didn’t want it to end but after a while, even the wetsuit couldn’t keep me warm, so I returned to the boat where our guide greeted me with a much-appreciated cup of hot cocoa.
If you ever visit Florida in the winter this is an activity I highly recommend. It could be said that manatee tours just benefit people, not manatees. However, I feel that once people experience such closeness to these endangered creatures; they will be more likely to support conservation efforts. I for one won’t ever forget the feeling I had when the girl calf looked me right in the eye as she nuzzled my mask. Magical.
For more information on manatees and their conservation, visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Florida Manatee Program website.