Photo courtesy Discover Crystal River
Contributor James Ross shares his tips and tactics for enjoying a memorable adventure swimming with manatees on the Gulf Coast of Florida
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The water is as smooth as glass as our small group glides out on a pontoon boat from the Plantation on Crystal Riverinto Kings Bay. Our mission? To swim with a few of the 400 West Indian manatees that migrate here each winter for the warmth of the river’s natural springs.
It is early morning. Apparently manatees get going bright and early. They wake up, look for some breakfast, hang out with their buddies, and then spend a healthy part of the afternoon napping. It sounds like a good life.
I am here on Florida’s Gulf Coast in search of the wilder side of this relaxing state, beyond the beaches and amusement parks, looking for an adventure that will have me swimming with these magnificent manatees.
Swimming with Manatees on the Gulf Coast of Florida
As I float in the Crystal River, facemask down and snorkel up, all I see is sand and silt. The water is murky this morning. We had been schooled in proper manatee etiquette before our departure and threatened with hefty fines for disobeying.
Our education stresses passive observation: no frantic splashing, no touching, no swimming after the animals, and, most definitely, no riding a manatee. So I paddle around carefully, extra vigilant not to touch or startle anything, gently swishing my hands to power myself along.
I gawk left and right, peer through the gloomy water, and drift around in circles. But I see nothing. Just when I am starting to feel underwhelmed and disappointed, I get the eery impression that a huge, dark shadow is materializing to my left. Suddenly I’m face-to-face with a 10-foot, one ton sea mammal, and I immediately have a “Jaws” flashback.
I set my masked face in a twisted look of horror and certainly would have screamed if not for the snorkel in my mouth. But instead of staring into a gaping mouth and pointed teeth, I instead see a massive sea creature looking quizzically at me. On his pudgy face is the expression of a befuddled puppy. He looks like a zeppelin with whiskers and flippers.
Swimming With Crystal River Manatees is a Joyful Experience
I had heard that early explorers like Christopher Columbus thought manatees were mermaids: obviously very frumpy mermaids. I guess that’s what happens when sailors are at sea too long.
No, I’m not physically attracted to these elegant sea cows, but I am fascinated. They take turns swimming up and around me, softly punting me with their oversized noses before gently gliding past and going about their morning routine like I was not even there.
We have learned from our guide that manatees have no natural predators, and therefore no inherent defense mechanisms. As I don’t look like a garden salad this morning, I feel safe; the manatees seem about as aggressive as couch cushions and almost as soft and cuddly. I resist the urge to give them a big hug, an act that would, I think, certainly lead to some jail time.
A Little Florida Manatee History
Manatees evolved from land mammals and are related to elephants. They still have small fingernails on their front flippers. They use these flippers to steer and their paddle-like tails to propel themselves up and down, gracefully moving their huge bodies through the water. The gentle giants spend pretty much all their waking hours eating. That’s 200 pounds of greens, eaten five to eight hours daily to maintain their beautiful rotund shape.
After the manatees have tired of our company in Kings Bay, we climb back aboard the boat and venture into Three Sisters Springs, a natural series of shallow pools that resemble a water park. Here, the water is crystal clear, making it easy to see the hundreds of manatees who drift around the site. They are coastal dwellers, and can survive in both fresh and salt water, but they can’t pressurize their ears, meaning you’ll never find them down very deep.
Those who prefer to see these creatures of the sea from the comfort of dry land can do that too. The Three Sisters Springs Refuge has a boardwalk that meanders around the pools, and the springs are so clear that it makes for easy viewing.
They may not have the strength and grace of killer whales, or the agility and good looks of dolphins, but swimming with manatees is a profound experience and one of the top things to do on the Gulf of Florida. It’s also one that I think you should add to your bucket list.
If You Fancy Swimming with Manatees…
Crystal River is located around 60 miles north of Tampa Bay. To earn more about swimming with manatees, visit the Plantation Adventure Center’s website at www.plantationoncrystalriver.com.
Looking for somewhere great to stay in Crystal Springs? We recommend The Plantation on Crystal River. For the latest reviews, rates, and reservations visit The Plantation on Crystal River. And be sure to check out the resort’s excellent West 82 Bar & Grill when the hungers strike.
Prefer a high-end Florida B&B experience? Crystal Blue Lagoon Bed and Breakfast also offers comfortable stays.
For more information about this beautiful part of Florida, visit www.DiscoverCrystalRiverFL.com.
Contributor James Ross is a travel writer and columnist, and author of the books Cottage Daze and Still in a Daze at the Cottage. He lives in Muskoka, Ontario, Canada.
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