Swimming with Manatees!
My decision to head to Crystal River, Florida was a deliberate one: I was on a mission to swim with manatees. So, before sunrise on my second full day in Florida I boarded a pontoon boat owned by River Ventures Manatee Tour company and was on my way to the preserve located within the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
Manatees are protected by federal law and entrance into the sanctuary by boat or human is strictly forbidden, but provided you stay outside the clearly marked boundaries, encounters with the lumbering marine animals are permitted. In addition to having a designated safe space, the manatees are also protected by laws which prohibit people from initiating contact or in any way harassing them; so while they are welcome to approach you or your outstretched hand for example, you may not reach out and touch them. The best tactic in order to prevent startling them is in fact to move as little as possible and remain floating on the surface, waiting passively
The animals are most active in the early morning, swimming in search of food, so I opted to take the earliest tour. That morning the temperatures were hovering around the freezing mark which resulted in an ethereal mist over the water that accentuated the beauty of the sunrise and the clouds streaked across the brightening sky. While it was certainly cold getting into the water, the 72 degree water made it completely tolerable. And really, who cares? I was going to get to see manatees!
Now that all the explaining is out of the way, can I tell you just how excited I was to be able to see manatees up close?!?!? And how my experience exceeded even my wildest dreams?!?!? As soon as I paddled to near the preserve boundary I was approached by manatees, eager to nuzzle my hand, nibble on my camera, and position themselves for belly rubs. I was entertained by the adorable giants for over an hour, rarely left to myself; as soon as one tired of me or wanted to move on, another would emerge from the cloudy water (usually startling me as they seemed to appear out of nowhere) in order to check me out. Occasionally more than one would loom a few yards away, as if on standby. I felt loved.
At one point two manatees conspired to play with me – a situation aptly described by a friend of mine as being treated as though I were a pool toy: One swam underneath me then rose to the surface, carrying me along before submerging deeper, whereupon the other would position himself underneath me and repeat the process. I was continually amazed the entire time, so much so that more than once I somehow managed to choke on the snorkel and ended up just holding my breath for while [side note: I’m a great swimmer but apparently a sub-par snorkeler].
As incredible as all this was, it didn’t compare to the best experience of the morning however, which occurred just before we left. A manatee had swum right up to me but had stopped with his snout inches from my face, hovering as he stared at me for what was likely only ten seconds but felt like an eternity. I believe we in fact communicated. And then he moved aside and placed his flipper in my hand that had been floating outstretched to the side. As I moved my fingertips ever so slightly he pulled his flipper in towards his body and simultaneously rotated onto his back, actually pulling me along with him by holding my hand. I can’t think of too many experiences in my life that even compare to this.