Last Friday, Crystal River did not live up to its name. It was murky and the crystal clear waters that I remembered had a visibility of only about six feet. In some respects, however, it added an element of mystery, when, as I lay floating flat on the surface, a manatee would appear from beneath me and rise up until it was looking me straight in the eyes, inches away from my mask. Here is a short video I edited of footage shot by our captain and guide, Phil Eledge of our snorkeling with manatees.
While manatees look a bit like seals, they have relatively thin layer of fat to protect them from cold water. They cannot tolerate water temperatures below 68 degrees F, so hundreds of manatees gather every winter in the springs at Crystal River and Homosassa, which remain a relatively balmy 72 degrees F year round.
Crystal River and Homosassa are the only places in Florida where you can legally snorkel with manatees. Before we set out, we were required to watch a Fish and Wildlife video, which laid out the rules about how we could and could not interact with the manatees. Our captain and in-water guide, Phil, of American Pro Diving, repeated and amplified the rules as we headed out for the King Spring, in Crystal River.
Snorkeling with manatees is somewhat controversial. Some organizations are opposed to any unnecessary manatee contact with humans. Under controlled conditions and provided that everyone follows the rules, however, it is legal in Crystal River.
The rules are fairly simple. The manatee must be the one initiating contact. We were not allowed to swim after a manatee, but if a manatee approached us we were allowed to touch it with one hand. No grabbing or hugging allowed. Avoid touching the manatee’s face or tail. No riding the manatee. Let the manatee control the encounter.
I had heard that there can be upwards of two hundred manatees in the spring during the coldest part of the winter. There were, however, probably only about a dozen manatee in the spring last Friday morning. The weather has been warm, so fewer manatees have headed up the rivers from the Gulf to the springs. The area around the spring is divided into manatee sanctuary areas, which are buoyed and roped off, and the navigable areas. No swimmers, powerboats or kayaks are allowed inside the sanctuary areas. A monitor in a kayak paddled the periphery of the sanctuary to make sure the rules were followed.
We all hung out, floating on pool flotation noodles, and waited outside the sanctuary area. In a few minutes, a large female swam out of the sanctuary, followed by two smaller males. They swam toward us. Soon, several other manatees appeared, looming up at us from beneath the turbid water. It all felt other-worldly. One manatee came up just below me as I tried to lay a flat as possible on the surface, brushing gently by me as it swam on. Several times, I found myself with a manatee’s face immediately in front of mine, as if it wanted to establish eye contact. It was an amazing experience.
As the Senegalese forestry engineer, Baba Dioum, wrote, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” After snorkeling with manatees, I have a much greater understanding of these remarkable animals and am ready to be learn more.