Everyone knows something about the “seacows” of the world: manatees.
They are herbivores, they are really really big, they like shallow, warm water, they hang out in Florida in the winters.
As soon as I figured that last part out, I was on a mission to get in the water and get swimming with manatees.
As you can probably guess, I was successful!
I found a tour through Bird’s Underwater in Crystal River that started at the ass crack of dawn at 6 am. Now, not being a morning person, I tried talking my way out of that 5 am wake up but was reassured that this was the best tour time possible. Ok, fine. I am so happy I listened to the guys at Bird’s Underwater, shocker, they knew what they were talking about.
Before I get into the details of the tour experience here are some things to look for in a tour company when swimming with manatees:
- You are swimming with manatees, which are wild animals. They aren’t dangerous but they deserve respect. There is a very large weight of responsibility placed on our shoulders to make sure no harm is done to their habitats and the animals themselves. Make sure to choose a tour company that abides by the regulations and is vetted from other reviews.
- Look for smaller tours at odd times or go in the shoulders of the season. The waters get packed around 8 or 9 am and it can take away from the experience a bit when you’re trying not to bump into other snorkelers.
- Find passionate people. Captain Steve quit his job in the corporate world to teach people about manatees every day and Jenny travels almost 2 hours each way to lead tour groups every day.
- Floating noodles make the experience.
This was my first major snorkeling experience. Sure, I’ve strapped on a mask and snorkel and swam around with fish the size of my finger before but never with something that was larger than me. I was a little nervous.
Stepping foot into the dive shop at 5:59 am (See, I can be punctual), I was warmly greeted by the dive masters Cody, Captain Steve and Jenny. I slapped on a wetsuit, or more like suction-cupped a wetsuit on in sub-arctic temperatures (It was like 40F people!) and was ready to go.
There were a few groups in the dive shop and we all gathered around a TV to watch a safety and guidelines video to swimming with manatees.
The video took us through what to do and what not to do around manatees. It strictly stated that we were not to poke, prod, chase, or otherwise actively engage with the manatees. ‘Passive observation’ was going to be strictly enforced not only by the Captain and dive master but also by onlookers monitoring the areas.
The manatees, however, clearly didn’t pay attention during their training video.
Our group headed straight to the Three Sisters Springs area. Pulling up in the boat, a big momma manatee floated by us and I started freaking out. I was about to be in the water with THAT.
I reminded myself over and over, they are gentle beings, they don’t have teeth, they eat green leafy things not little girls named Megan.
We pulled up next to an area that was roped off so that manatees could sleep in peace and I was dumbfounded with how many there were.
I can’t even give you a reasonable number…100 maybe? Picture 100 things the size of hippos. Yikes.
That’s when Captain Steve gave the order to get in the water. Oh boy. It was time to start swimming with manatees.
We were handed a noodle told to carefully get in the water. Sorry, no cannon balls. Manatees have very bad eyesight but their other senses are extremely fine-tuned and waves can trigger them to run away from you.
We were instructed to not use our feet to swim, only small doggie paddle movements to make the least disturbance. Also, which I later found out, so you don’t kick the manatees that decide it’s funny to come up and suck on your toes.
I stuck my face in the water and concentrated on swimming and looking around.
Then it happened. A huge manatee attacked me. Or… it swam up behind me, nibbled my toes and swam under me bumping me up. Obviously, I screamed because, manatee. And was sternly scolded. Nothing drives manatees away faster than a screaming swimmer. They need to tell the manatees to not sneak up on people then!
After one more sneak attack, and subsequent scream, I had a little pep talk with myself, reminded myself of the no teeth thing and began to relax.
We spent a few minutes outside the springs getting to know the couple manatees swimming around there then decided to make the gruesome swim upriver to the springs. This wasn’t easy with a noodle. But we made it and were rewarded with….no manatees.
That’s ok though, the spring itself was gorgeous. The waters were a beautiful blue and crystal clear. We explored the area for a few minutes and enjoyed the free ride back down the spring and back to the manatees.
I spent the next hour floating around watching a couple baby manatees playing with the swimmers and the anchors and ropes attached to the boats. Now here’s where the manatees broke the rules.
We were instructed to hold perfectly still if one came near us. If one swam under us we were told to put our arms in the air to show that we didn’t do that on purpose.
But the manatees did not respect our personal space. It was more like the manatees were swimming with us than us swimming with manatees.
They kept coming up to the snorkelers and sticking their snouts in their faces or munching on their hair or nudging their arms. I even had one gnaw on my frizzies. I didn’t think anything of it until I was combing my hair later and discovered a definite semi-bald spot of missing hair that was a manatee snack apparently.
So worth it.
This was an incredible experience. It was one of those things where I stopped in the middle of it and just had this moment of affirmation that, “this is why I travel.” Things like swimming with manatees aren’t going to happen in my swimming pool at my parents’ house.
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Thank you to Bird’s Underwater for hosting me for a tour during my time in Crystal River, Florida. As always, all thoughts are my own.