By Laura King
In January I was fortunate swim with the manatees of Crystal River, Florida, with Nadia Aly, founder of Scuba Diver Life. Unfortunately, Nadia and I somehow managed to choose the coldest day of the year to go on this adventure. After arrival, we spent the night at Plantation on Crystal River, sharing our ocean stories and preparing our cameras for the following morning.
Crystal River is the self-professed “home of the manatee,” and sits on the spectacular Kings Bay, which is spring-fed, and so maintains a constant temperature of 72 degrees F (22 C). A cluster of 50 springs feed Kings Bay, totaling roughly 64 million gallons of water per day. Because of this volume, Crystal River is the second largest springs group in Florida.
When we woke up in the morning it was a bone-chilling 30 degrees F (minus 1 C). We quickly made our way to the dive shop, full of giggles and excitement. Three DVDs on manatee manners later — one on swimming with manatees, one on photographing manatees and one on driving a boat around manatees — and we were all set to head out on the pontoon we had hired for the day. We were told that because of the cold weather, the Three Sisters Spring had been closed off, as there were too many manatees in there. Too. Many. Manatees.
While driving up the river I was so cold I had to put on my dive gloves, but the hardest part came after we finished anchoring — taking off all our warm clothes and putting our wetsuits on. With frozen fingers this was no easy task, but the sight of manatees all around us served as incentive. My land camera was so cold it gave an error message and shut off — maybe it was smarter than we were.
Nadia was first in the water and she described it as being like a hot tub. I was skeptical at first but once I felt it, I couldn’t wait to jump in. Usually I don’t like water colder than 80 degrees F (26 C), but compared to the air, this felt amazing. While climbing down the ladder a manatee swam between Nadia and I, which gave us both a fright. I put my face in the water and was honestly quite freaked out by the lack of visibility. Being spoiled by the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean, I’m not used to having virtually no visibility.
We learned the hard way that you must always remain within 100 feet of your dive flag, which is attached to the boat. We had to get out the water (now wet and with an icy wind blowing on us) to move our boat closer to the swim area where it’s easiest to view the manatees. Once we had re-anchored I was so anxious to get back into the water I kicked Nadia’s fin off the boat. It quickly sank. Fortunately she wears white fins so I was able to find it in the murky waters. I knew I would have to dive down to get it, and being scared of the murky water I tried to use a boat hook, and even offered to buy Nadia new fins. She told me to man up and dive down. I told myself to just look at her fin — don’t look left or right or ahead, eyes on the fin. It’s probably the quickest dive I’ve ever done. (Have I mentioned I’ve been diving for twenty years? Yes, I’m ashamed of myself.)
Back in the water again, we made our way toward the swim area; I had to swim on my back, as I couldn’t bring myself to look down into the murky water. Finally, the water started to clear, as we got closer to the springs. There was a really shallow section where you could kneel to watch the manatees, and there was one waiting for us. They are huge — 10 feet long, and just as enormous in size. I put my head in the water and was adjusting my camera settings when a manatee came up behind me and grabbed my leg. My screams echoed down the entire river and I almost drowned myself in the process.
Far from being aggressive, though, the manatees of Crystal River are so accustomed to humans that they’re more affectionate than I ever could have guessed. As part of the manatee manners DVDs we watched, we learned that you are not to approach the manatees, but rather let them come to you. This wasn’t difficult — when they see you, they swim straight for you. They will bump the camera a few times and then try to get even closer. If you scratch them on their backs they turn over like puppies so you can scratch their bellies. As soon as you stop they right themselves and come closer to get you to start over. I never realized how lovable these amazing creatures are and they make it impossible not to touch them by always initiating contact with you.
Nadia and I spent two blissful hours snorkeling with the manatees; the only sounds were our laughter and occasional “come here quickly” through our snorkels. We’re not sure how many manatees we saw that day; there were few moments when there wasn’t at least one with us. We both agreed that it was one of the best days we’d ever had. Snorkeling with manatees should be on everybody’s bucket list. I fell in love with them that day, although maybe next time I snorkel with them, I’ll check the weather report first.
Manatees are herbivores, with a diet consisting primarily of sea grasses and freshwater vegetation. They are usually found in the warm waters of shallow rivers, bays, estuaries and coastal waters. They rarely venture into waters colder than 68 F (20 C). They are well known for their gentle, slow-moving nature. Manatees breathe through their nostrils and their lungs are 2/3 the length of their body.
The biggest threat to manatees is from collisions with watercraft. Propellers and boat hulls inflict serious or fatal wounds. We saw many scars on the manatees in Crystal River. If you are boating in shallow waters please observe the speed limits and watch out for manatees. Today it’s thought that there are less than 5,000 manatees living in the United States, and they are protected by federal law. To find out how you can contribute to the conservation of these magical creatures please visit www.savethemanatee.org