This winter I did something I never thought I would do. I put on a wetsuit!
Okay, that’s not really the thing I never thought I would do, but it was a first and I am proud to say there is little photo evidence of that floating around. It’s not a good look for anyone. The more exciting first was the reason for wearing the wetsuit. I went swimming with manatees in Crystal River, Florida.
Manatees are large but gentle marine mammals. They are herbivores, and often are called sea cows. Crystal River, the winter home to the largest population of manatees in Florida, is located west of Ocala in an area that is known as Florida’s Nature Coast because of its unspoiled beauty.
December through March is the peak season for manatees, a protected species, in this area. Cooler winter water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico drive the manatees inland into the warm springs, which is where my daughters’ Girl Scouts troop and I had the chance to encounter these special creatures. We joined another troop from our area on a manatee snorkeling excursion arranged through River Ventures.
We arrived at River Ventures’ offices in Crystal River, where we were provided wetsuits and watched a safety video and presentation about the rules for snorkeling around manatees. Strict regulations require passive observation, which means floating quietly with as little disturbance to the water as possible when a manatee is nearby. This video provides a good overview.
After learning the rules, we took a shuttle bus to the boat docks where we boarded two of the tour company’s pontoon boats. Three staff members accompanied each boat. After a short ride, we arrived in an area known as Jurassic Spring. We put on our masks and snorkels and proceeded very quietly and calmly into the water.
Even though I’ve spent a lot of time at the beach, I’ve never snorkeled all that much. The wetsuit, mask and snorkel, plus the pool noodle we were all given to float on, took some getting used to, especially because you are not supposed to kick or let your feet touch the ground. This is to avoid disturbing the manatees’ environment. My youngest daughter was by my side most of the time, and I frequently needed to help her with her snorkel, as well. It wasn’t difficult, just awkward. Fortunately the River Ventures staff was great with the young kids and helped them back to the boat when they needed a break. That allowed me to relax and explore the spring a little more than I had up to that point.
A couple of other tour boats were visiting the same area, so it was crowded at times. Each group took turns observing some manatees that were sleeping in the area. Otherwise we generally floated around in a small area near private homes and docks. It wasn’t exactly the secluded, National Geographic atmosphere I’d envisioned, but we definitely saw manatees. Two or three of them swam up to me or under me during our time in the water.
One of our guides said the best way to see more manatees is to schedule your tour right after a cold snap when more manatees seek warmth in the spring waters. If you have the luxury of a flexible schedule, that may be a good strategy. Otherwise, early morning tours are said to be better than later in the day.
Seeing the manatees up close in their natural habitat was an experience I will never forget. They were very gentle, just as we were told they’d be, and they didn’t seem phased by our floating in the area. I was glad I had brought a waterproof camera along to snap a few photos.
The snorkeling tour was good, but while we were in the water, I saw a few kayakers paddle by who were also looking for manatees. If we go back to Crystal River, I might try this experience simply because you can see the manatee from your vantage point in the kayak when they swim to the surface, and it appears that you could move more easily to another location in the spring, too. There are also parks with manatee-viewing overlooks for those who want a more casual way to observe these beautiful animals.
It was fun to try something new and learn about the manatees that are such a treasure in this part of our state.