Up Close with a Manatee

A closeup

We haven’t had the best of luck with our 1,000 Places to See Before You Die book on the trip since the suggestions are often opulent beyond our meager means. But we had to push our budget for one – swimming with manatees in Crystal River, Florida – and after, we would’ve been happy to pay more. For only $45 each (the cheapest attraction in the Orlando area), we got to swim with manatees for three full hours.

For those of you unfamiliar with the mighty manatee, we’re not surprised. There are only about 3,200 of these gentle giants remaining in US waters. Weighing as much as 1300 pounds, the endangered mammals float, sleep and eat pounds of sea grass in an attempt to maintain its well-earned nickname “the sea cow”. They have hair, they breath air and while they pretty much lay around most of the time, they can swim as fast as 20 mph for short bursts. Pretty cool.

Our timing was impeccable as the normally solitary manatees throw a virtual party in the Crystal River during winter. They migrate here to get out of the cold Gulf of Mexico and bathe in the 72 degree warmth of the natural spring that feeds the river. No one knows for sure how many manatees inhabit the river at one time, but last year on the area’s coldest day, a rough park department count indicated that nearly 600 were in the river, while fewer than 50 can be found here at other times.

We picked River Ventures, and we’re glad we did. River Ventures provides visitors with donuts and coffee, a quick safety video that covers the strict rules for swimming and interacting with the manatee. Rangers are in the river everyday (often undercover) to ensure visitors are not stalking the animals or changing their behavior in any way. They stressed the importance of allowing the manatee to engage. They spook easily and hate loud noise, so when you’re near a manatee, it’s crucial to whisper and to maintain absolute relaxation – a floating technique called the dead man’s float helps with this.

After getting in a full body wet suit, we hopped in the van for the mile drive to the dock. We boarded the pontoon boat and slowly made our way to the manatee area. Of course our excitement was building the whole way as we could see adults, adolescents and even 60 lb babies swimming along the boat as we make our way there.

Following another quick reminder of the rules, we strapped on our fins and snorkel gear hop in. We stop near a protected zone – an area specifically set aside for the manatees – and there were dozens of sea cows sleeping on the floor of the river. Our guide let us snag a few pictures, but then led us deeper toward the main springs.

Once there, we got to see a few more adults resting and swimming by and even got the chance to see a calf feed. Interestingly, calves grow at an incredible rate their first year and must feed regularly from a teat just behind their mother’s flipper. It was remarkable to see firsthand.

But the main even was still yet to come. Manatee calves and adolescents can be quite playful, and we were delighted when a very young calf (probably nearing a year, and almost 200 pounds) approached our group. He kissed another girl in our group, rolled over to get his belly rubbed (Who’s a good manatee? Who’s a good boy?) and hung out with us for some time.

He seemed to take a liking to Victoria and came in for a kiss. Unfortunately, and you can’t blame her – they’re quite big – she got scared and backed away! She missed her chance for a manatee kiss, but our tour guide got a great photo.

Everyone in our group got the chance to touch a manatee – their skin slimy with the moss that gathers after the Gulf barnacles get sloughed off in the fresh water. They are graceful in the water. They are quiet animals. The only communication we heard in the water is a high pitch noise when a baby was trying to find his mother.

This amazing experience is definitely a MUST on your list. You won’t regret it and we want to do it again!

Check out the pictures.