The baby manatee nuzzled my cheek with its fleshy whiskered muzzle, and when I began to scratch under its chin, it went vertical in the water, grabbed my hand between its two rubbery fins with their five broad, flat fingernails each, and hugged it to its chest. My heart melted right there and then in the early November, 72-degree waters of Crystal River, north of Tampa in Florida.
The encounter was pure magic, but it was only one of about 20 magical encounters I experienced with the manatees of Crystal River that morning. The first time one of the mammoth blimps approached, it took my breath away with its sheer size.
We had been schooled on the giants’ gentle and curious nature. They get in your face, nudging your snorkel mask, looking directly into your eyes, rolling over when you scratch them, nibbling on your wet suit with their prehensile lips, and sometimes directing your hand and its course of scratching with their fins. Ah! yes, right there, that’s where it itches.
The adventure begins before sane people are out of bed with an equipment fitting and orientation talk and video at Bird’s Underwater Dive Shop, the most respected name in manatee snorkeling excursions in Crystal River’s King’s Bay, where the largest herd of Florida manatees congregates every winter to warm themselves in the climate-controlled waters of its many springs.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Manatees, despite their size, are among the sweetest animals alive.
- The clear spring waters make snorkeling a pleasure.
- Great for water- and marine life-lovers.
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge protects the endangered prehistoric creatures during their annual migrations from October to April. By Nov. 15, the refuge closes off sanctuaries to human intrusion. Our group of about 15 was lucky to encounter upwards of 50 manatees during two different stops in the bay area.
The One-Hand Rule (and Other Rules)
The laws keep strict vigilance on the animals’ well-being. Snorkelers and swimmers must allow a manatee to approach them and can pet them with only one hand at a time. They cannot disturb manatees sleeping on the bottom of the freshwater habitat or as they feed.
Harassment is strictly patrolled and fined. Chris, our captain and guide, offered further pointers on where and how they like being scratched.
She carefully scoured the waters for a herd with which we could interact so that we wouldn’t overwhelm manatees in small numbers.
She picked a spot just outside of Three Sisters Springs, from where the sea cows would be emerging as the morning warmed. Sure enough, we happened upon a herd. At any one moment, I could spy up to 10 of the bulbous, doughy creatures with their flat paddle tails lying on the bottom or swimming up to breathe or interact with the snorkelers.
Critters with Personality
At one point, I had three manatees all to myself. The smallest one – the calves seemed to particularly like the attention, while the older ones were often more aloof – was particularly interested in me, and vice versa.
The calf stayed with me for several minutes as I scratched its back, collecting algae under my fingernails. Suddenly something very momentous swooped up from below to come between me and the calf. Mom, no doubt, just checking me out, making sure I wasn’t harming her baby.
When it was time to warm up between dives, Bird’s provided hot coffee, chocolate, and tea and fresh donuts on board the pontoon boat. The outfit also equips you with the finest diving gear and is a first-class operation all around.
The group peeled down their wet suits and warmed up with the hot beverages and the excited tales of the incredible encounters with these creatures that seemed almost mythical in their dimension and personalities.
Where else do you get eye-to-eye with wildlife in its habitat and feel entirely safe, even awed and endeared?
People in Crystal River who frequent the manatee habitat talk about the different personalities – the one with the gouged tail, the other with deep white scars across its back, and the character that likes to lie on its back on the bottom corpse-like with its fins crossed over its chest.
Like dogs, the manatees are loveable and can elicit immediate affection, not to mention the giggles and gasps I heard bubbling out of the end of snorkel tubes.
My own biggest giggle came when I was hanging vertical in the water and a manatee approached me, then took the same position, tail down.
Hanging there face-to-face with me in the water he first reminded me of some cartoon character with his fins crossed over his bulging belly. Then it came to me – Jabba the Hutt! — and I laughed out loud. I maybe imagined it but the manatee looked as if he enjoyed the joke too.
- Snorkeling with the manatees is great for all ages, but strong swimming abilities are a must. You may want to practice snorkeling before you go, or get a quick lesson in a swimming pool.
- Bird’s Underwater, 800-771-2763 or 352-563-2763
- Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, 352-563-2088