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Florida Manatees
January 11-15, 2002
Manatees are curious marine mammals that spend their day eating, sleeping, and playing—the playing part drew us to Central Florida to get a closer look at these shy sea cows. A few years ago, we discovered that not only could you get a close-up view of these strange looking animals from above the water, you could also get in the water and snorkel with these gentle giants. We started researching and found that the Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, ranges from the St John’s River south to around Miami on the Atlantic coast, and that they tend to congregate anywhere from the Everglades north to the Suwannee River on the Gulf Coast. Of most interest was the fact that they migrate to warmer waters during the winter months—they seek out, as refuge from the cold, the warm spring fed waters of Crystal River, Blue Spring, Weeki Wachee Spring, and Homasassa Spring, which are a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit year round.
The best time to see the manatees gathering in the rivers is anywhere from October to April—we booked a flight to Tampa on January 11, 2002 in order to head for Homasassa Springs State Wildlife Park. It would be here that we would get our first glimpse of a manatee. The park houses manatees who have been injured or orphaned and helps to rehabilitate them with the hope of releasing them into the wild again someday—they have platforms from which you can view the huge animals lazily swimming about in the crystal clear green waters of the spring. They also have an underwater viewing area, the Fishbowl Underwater Observatory, where you can come face to face with these strange looking creatures without even getting wet, and it can be quite a thrill to have them looking back at you with the same curious gaze. Adding to the scene are huge schools of jacks that tirelessly swim in tight packed circles past the viewing window—separating only for the manatees. In addition to the marine attractions, the park offers the visitor a look at other native Florida wildlife—nature trails guide you through the park and give you the chance to view several species up close. Of special interest is the bird enclosure—housing many birds that can no longer survive in the wild—for these special creatures, the park provides as natural a habitat and diet as possible. Visitors have the privilege of gaining close proximity to the birds, allowing for excellent viewing and photography—caracara, bald eagles, red-tailed hawk, great horned owls, pelicans, ibis, and flamingos are all striking subjects for the lens.
After enjoying the manatees and birds at Homasassa Springs, we made our way north to Crystal River in the heart of Florida’s Nature Coast—Crystal River is situated around the magnificent Kings Bay, a beautiful spring-fed body of water. During the winter, Kings Bay is home to over 400 manatees that seek out the warm waters of the spring—second only to the Everglades; the bay is the next largest aquifer in the state of Florida.
The West Indian Manatee, a large, gray-brown aquatic mammal, spends most of its time feeding and resting—those who visit Kings Bay in the winter when the manatees congregate have the option to interact with these gentle creatures in their natural environment, and it is the only place you can legally do so in the United States.
Several tour operators exist in the King Bay area that offer guided trips to swim with the manatees, but we chose Birds Underwater—a company comprised of a friendly and knowledgeable staff with a respect for the manatees that shows in everything they do—they provide an unforgettable adventure and we highly recommend them.
Our Birds Underwater guide and captain, Charlie Slider, provided us with pre-excursion manatee etiquette—via a video filmed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. After the video viewing, you have the option to rent a wetsuit and other gear, or change into your own—next, you proceed to the dock with your captain and board one of the enclosed pontoon boats, each equipped with changing rooms and toilets.
As you set off across Kings Bay, your captain will brief you on the area and the natural history of the manatee while searching for a good location to swim with the animals—after everyone quietly enters the water, the snorkel adventure begins, and as a bonus, the captain shoots a digital HD underwater video of the excursion, which you may purchase as a souvenir.
Many of the manatees are, of course, outside the roped areas and it is these animals that often interact with swimmers— as I got closer to the ropes, I turned around and noticed a manatee swimming towards our group. Charlie pointed out that she was nursing, and he was quite excited to discover that she was nursing twin calves! The mother’s nipple is located just behind her flipper in her “armpit” and sure enough there she was floating towards us with a calf snuggled under each flipper—it was a site to behold!
You might be wondering what the rules of contact are with these gentle giants, so we better go over some manatee etiquette—you are allowed to touch, pet, tickle, and/or scratch the manatees, so long as you are only using one hand—placing both hands on a manatee at once is considered to “riding” and is against the law. It is also forbidden to touch a manatee while it is nursing, and you should wait for the manatee to approach you rather than chasing them down—chasing a manatee is considered harassment—but don’t worry, they will come to you! They are shy, yet curious marine mammals, and they enjoy human interaction—when they have had enough of you, they will just swim away to rest in one of the sanctuaries.
The next spring that we visited would prove to be our best encounter—we jumped into the water and were immediately greeted by three young manatees who wanted to play—they swam right up to us and looked straight into our eyes, so close, in fact that you could count the whiskers on their snout! As they cruise by, I held my hand out to pet them—their skin felt rubbery, and they actually seem to quiver with excitement—and they love to be scratched! If you scratch near their flippers they launch into these barrel rolls in order to give you access to those big bellies. All 8 of us floated around with big smiles on our faces, as we rubbed their bellies and tickled their “underarms”. The encounter lasted for about 45 minutes, until the manatees decided they had enough scratching and then just swam off—disappearing into the murky water—it was an experience that I will never forget.
If given the opportunity, you should jump at the chance to experience the grace of these beautiful animals—I think we would all work harder to protect them, if more people were fortunate enough to have an intimate interaction with a wild manatee. If you find yourself boating in Florida, please remember to operate your boat at idle and slow speed in areas where manatees are likely to be—this easy and simple rule, if followed, will help save these endangered animals.
To help protect these gentle animals visit Save the Manatee
Manatees Revisted January 2012
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