Manatees are loud eaters. I heard a constant “munch” sound while floating like Superman above a manatee. As the gentle giant slowly drifted inches above the bay bottom, I watched in awe. Her prehensile lips sucked up sea grass from the its path, just as my iRobot Roomba whisks up cat fur.
When Water Temperatures Drop
Manatee season happens when sea cows migrate to warmer waters roughly between mid-November and March 31. When water temperatures are cooler than 68 degrees Fahrenheit, these gentle giants are susceptible to hypothermia which may be fatal. There are several places warm enough for them to live year-round. Crystal River, about a 2.5-hour drive north of my North Port home, is one of those destinations. In fact, it is the Manatee Capital of the World!
Worth the O’Dark-Thirty Wake Up Call
On an April Saturday morning, I rolled out of my driveway at 5:30 to pick up family visiting from the chilly north. This gave us plenty of drive-time to arrive for our 9:45 a.m. semi-private excursion from the Plantation Adventure Center in Crystal River. The tour takes place in Kings Bay which is 600 acres with a two-mile diameter and has the largest concentration of Florida manatees in the world. During the winter months, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates there are about 600 manatees and during the rest of the year, about 30.
Upon arrival to the Plantation Adventure Center, we signed waivers and dressed in 5-millimeter wetsuits provided by the operator. It was like shimmying into a pair of size-too-small, full-body Spanx. But, I sure did feel like a superhero in that black and pink suit. Apparently, I must have felt like a manatee because one of the other snorkeling participants bumped into me in the water and kept patting my thigh. Anyway…
Manatees, Lovely to Look At
Personally, manatees have adorable faces. I just want to wrap my arms around them and give them a big ol’ hug. Fortunately for them, they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, Endangered Species Act of 1973, and Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. This means, it is unlawful to capture, harass, hunt or kill one. Doing so can result in hefty fines and/or imprisonment. This includes touching and hugging, unless they initiate contact. Well, they will touch you but not hug you.
Before hopping on the pontoon, we watched a video and learned about passive observation, the lawful and proper way to snorkel with manatees. Some of the forbidden activities include reaching out and touching, riding, stepping on, poking with an object, and diving next to this mammal. There is a lot to remember about what you can and cannot do around them. Fortunately, a guide keeps you in check during the excursions.
“Show Me Your Superman”
Less than 10 minutes into the trip, the group of six was in the water observing a least three manatees. Capt. Misty, an Adventure Center tour guide, led the group into the water while Capt. Mark manned the boat.
“Show me your Superman,” Capt. Mark called to me as I climbed down the boat’s ladder into the 70-ish degree water.
What he was referring to was posing for passive observation. This is done by extending arms and legs out, like the superhero. A masked-face is in the water while breathing through the snorkel. Fins were not used, with the exception of the guide, and the wetsuits are buoyant. For anyone not comfortable in relying on the suit, foam swim noodles are available to keep a snorkeler afloat.
In addition to the Superman pose, another rule of the trip was no touching the bottom and no splashing water. The first is because touching the bay bottom stirs up sediment and clouds the water for viewing. The second is because the sound and vibration from splashing the water may scare or irritate. As Capt. Mark explained, manatees are covered with short, sensitive hairs and splashing water is the equivalent of having water splashed in your face. Pretty annoying.
That Magical Manatee Experience
Doing my best, non-splashing doggy paddle, I spotted my first manatee and watched as she swam next to me. The water was a bit cloudy making it difficult to see. It must have been difficult for the manatees to see, too. One bumped my thigh and brushed my extended hand. Since the mammal initiated contact, that interaction is a permissible under law.
After watching the gentle giants, which can weigh between 800 and 1,200 pounds, we loaded into the boat and headed toward Three Sisters Springs in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Capt. Misty said there won’t be any manatees but the scenery is worth a visit.
Motorized boats are not permitted so Capt. Mark anchored the boat and we began swimming toward the springs. Capt. Misty then called out that a manatee was opposite the springs’ entrance. My family and I forwent the springs to watch this and other manatees.
Passively Watching Manatees in the Superman Pose
While in the Superman pose, we watched manatees as they innocently ate, swam, and surfaced for air. They did not seem to mind the dozens of snorkelers and kayakers who gathered to watch them lazily swim and feed.
Of the three that swam under me, they each had white scars etched in their steel-grey colored skin, at least one set looked as though a cat dragged its claws across it. I noticed a light covering of algae on one, which is common. At least one of their paddle-shaped tails had several notches around the edges.
There is something magical about encountering a manatee and I hope I never tire of seeing them. Observing and having some interaction with them was another reminder to live in and appreciate the moment.
Video of Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River
If the video about does not play, visit this link.
Nuts & Bolts About Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River
Plantation Adventure Center
9301 W Fort Island Trail
Crystal River, Florida34429
Tel: (352) 795-5797
Group, semi-private, and private manatee snorkeling tours are available. I booked the semi-private tour which accommodates up to 6 people and offered at 6:30 a.m. and 9:45 a.m. Tour length is about 3 hours and $99 per person. Tours are offered year-round and manatees are wild animals. This means they are somewhat unpredictable. However, I was told this tour sees manatees year-round. November – March are the prime times to snorkel with the manatees.
There is no age requirement to participate but keep in mind, all participants need to be able to be quiet and calm in the water. Children must be accompanied by an adult.
Where to Stay
Plantation Crystal River
9301 W Fort Island Trail
Crystal River, Fla. 34429
Tel: (352) 795-4211 or 1-800-632-6262