Swimming with Manatees

January 25, 2017

Today we went swimming with manatees.

This has been a long time in the making.  Many, many years ago, Jane learned about the manatee, nicknamed the sea cow.  This large, friendly, and docile creature is endangered.  Perhaps it was an article in the Chicago Tribune.  Or in Time magazine.  In any event, Jane had read about them and learned that there still were a few places where you can swim with them and observe them in their natural habitat.

Then, probably around 8 years or more ago, a work colleague told me about her recent trip to Florida and how she had swum with manatees at a place called Bird's Underwater at Crystal River.  I made a mental note about this, checked it out online, and decided that if we ever got into that area, I would take Jane swimming with the manatees. Today was the day.

(photo credit: Wayne Lynch/All Canada Photos/Corbis)

The manatee is a large marine mammal.  I believe that they are only found in Florida, but they may have cousins that go by other names in other parts of the world.  They are herbivores, eating around 10% of their body weight in plants every day.  An adult manatee can weight around 1600 lbs, so that's a lot of seaweed that they're chowing down.  As mammals, they need to stay warm.  While they may spend much of the summer dining in the warm Gulf of Mexico, when winter comes the water cools down, and the manatees head to warm Florida springs around Crystal River and Homosassa Springs. The springs there are 72 degrees F year round.

Around 40 years ago, manatee numbers had dwindled to just a few hundred. With various protections that were enacted in the 1970s, they have now increased to around 7000.  Crystal River and Homosassa are the only places where you can swim with manatees, and as we are staying just 20 miles from Crystal River, this was our chance.  Plus, the manatees come in to hang out at the springs from November to March, so this is the peak of the season for seeing them.


Bird's Underwater offers tours at 6:00 am and 11:00 am.  A phone call confirmed that 6:00 am is by far the preferred time to go, as the manatees will have been resting during the night and will be concentrated around the springs, the water will be clearer because no one will have churned it up yet, and we'll be the first ones in the water as none of the other tour companies show up that early.  So we were up at 4:45 am, on the road by 5:15, and at the dive shop and getting into wetsuits at 6.  (The other benefit of the first tour of the day is that the wetsuit is dry when you put it on.) We could not go into the area where the manatees are until after sunrise, but our guide had us in the water and ready to float in just as the sun rose.  And as the air temperature was in the mid 40s and the water was 72, it felt pretty good to get in the water.

Manatees are curious animals.  So when a group of humans comes floating into their world, some of them will want to come and check out these neoprene creatures.  As soon as we had entered the area of the springs, we were greeted by several manatees.  They come slowly floating up from the bottom and make gentle contact with you.  Could be by bumping up against you, or floating alongside and looking you eye to eye, or it could be a "manatee kiss" where they bump your face with their nose, which is covered with a couple thousand sensory hairs. Or they might nibble at your toes.  Seems that they are interested in feet, as they have only flippers.

(photo credit: Keith Ramos/FWS)

Jane and I had both hoped to see a number of manatees and possibly get to touch one.  Our expectations were greatly exceeded!  We were in the water for nearly 1 1/2 hours, and almost always in the company of one or several manatees.  While they do tend to look pretty similar, we did start to see several differences, like the one that was covered with barnacles (they move so slowly that barnacles will grow on them when they are in the gulf, and then fall off after a couple weeks at the freshwater springs), and another that has a propeller cut on his tail. And some behave differently from others.  One would bump up against you, and then slowly roll over on his back so that you could scratch his belly, much like a cat.  And then there was "Chester" the hugger, who would give you a little hug with his front flippers, which was a bit disconcerting the first time.

It's hard to know how many manatees were around, as the water is not really as clear as these picture would lead you to believe. But I would guess that our group of 8 swimmers was probably interacting with 20 - 30 different manatees, including at least one baby manatee.  By the time we were all tired and ready to head in, other tour boats started showing up.  With 30+ people in the water, it's likely that some of the manatees would get skittish and leave, and I'm sure that the later groups did not have the same level of interaction that we had.  Overall this was an amazing and fantastic experience for us, and I highly recommend it.
So, if you decide you want to do this, here's my recommendation:
1) Go to Crystal River, Florida.
2) Go between November and March, and try to go after the weather has been cool for a few days.
3) Book your tour with Bird's Underwater for 6:00 am.
They provide everything you need - wetsuit, snorkel mask and snorkel, the boat with a knowledgeable captain who knows where to go, a guide, and hot chocolate and donuts for when you get out of the water.


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2 comments

  1. Thanks! Never swam w/ 'em, but in 1971, weeks b4 I was drafted, Rose and I took a week trip to south Fla and saw one in one of the canals. That was pretty stunning, b/c I knew then that they were endangered.

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  2. Fascinating. So enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing your experience, Steve and Jane! My husband would love this. Adding it to our mental list.

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