Have you ever seen a manatee up close and in person? Those enormous sea cows with sweet faces that seem to float like buoys in the springs? Well it’s quite the experience!
Driving from Tampa toward the Homosassa River felt like taking a step back in time. From the smoked mullet sheds lining the roadsides to billboards advertising gator meat cooked every way imaginable, we prepared ourselves for the upcoming underwater encounter. Manatees average between 800 and 1,100 pounds and can reach lengths of 10-12 feet. In the winter, they congregate in the slower moving springs where the water is warmer. These gentle giants aren’t aggressive and spend most of their time eating sea grass and resting. We were getting excited! This was our chance to snorkel with these fascinating animals in the 72ºF crystal clear springs of Crystal River.
At Captain Mike’s Sunshine River Tours we were set with a wet suit (the water IS 72º!), a mask and snorkel while watching a video about Manatee Manners. Manatees are wild marine animals and it is illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill them. So, NO chasing the manatees! Let them come to you! They are curious, so they are usually quite abundant among the snorkelers.
The “Magic Bus” was waiting to take us on the 5 minute ride to the boat. A specially designed pontoon board comfortably held our group of 14 on board. Coffee and donuts were provided to keep us warm and happy. It was a chilly morning of 52º, but the wet suits kept us toasty. On the ride to the spring we saw resident ospreys, a great white egret, a great blue heron, and cormorants and anhingas galore. The “no wake” zone was teeming with hungry bird life!
Our last instructions were given, then the all clear to go in…OUCH! Those first steps into the cold water were torture. Icy water hitting warm neoprene and then seeping into the skin. BRR!! It only took a few minutes to acclimate, however, and then the search began! A recent storm made the waters where we snorkeled very murky and I was nervous we wouldn’t be able to see anything. The peat bottom of the river felt warm and squishy under my feet as I tried to get my bearings in the dark waters.
The muddy water in front of my face began to move and suddenly a flipper appeared. The flipper turned into a 1,000 pound creature looking a bit like an alien. An underwater alien was staring me right in the face! A little bit Yoda, wrinkled and wizened, with a bulbous hairy nose. Tiny eyes nearly hidden in rough folds of skin and all covered in a layer of green algae – I feel in love at first sight!
Letting the manatee approach me (as we were told to do!), I felt my heart race at the sheer size of this creature moving slowly toward me. I needn’t have worried as this gentlest of giants meant no harm and was simply as curious of me as I was of her. We both stared at each other for several long moments. Me, trying to memorize every detail of the wrinkles and folds of this awesome creature sharing space with me. She, probably wondering if I’d brought along any snacks to share.
I reached one hand out and a flipper was extended in kind. As instructed, I lightly scratched the area just behind the flipper. Almost on cue, “MY” manatee slowly rolled over on her back! An unabashed invitation to rub her white belly if I’ve ever seen one. Of course, I obliged without question. It was a gift and an opportunity I’d never imagined would be so fulfilling. I shared a morning swim with something I had only read about in books or seen from a distance in a zoo. A picture in a book or on the computer, but never so close and real.
That day we saw 20-30 other manatees who enjoyed belly scratches and flipper rubs, but none as special as “MY” manatee. These beautiful sea animals weren’t being fed, but simply graced us with their presence because they wanted to be there. Volunteer game wardens on kayaks were there to be lookouts for the safety of the manatees around so many people, but they all said it was a wonderful job. Better than therapy. “If you lived here, you’d do it, too,” she said. She’s right.
For more AMAZING pictures of these wonderful creatures, check out Carol Grant’s OceanGrant Images here. Her manatees will definitely make you smile!