Swimming with Manatees: Life in the Slow Zone

As far as swimming with mammals goes, dolphins seem to get all the press. However, there’s another large, docile, friendly Flipper-like mammal we wanted to get up close and personal with – the Florida manatee. To pay homage to Florida’s state marine mammal, we decided to take a family excursion to snorkel with them in Crystal River, Florida, located approximately 1 hour north of Tampa on Florida’s gulf coast.

After doing some research online, we decided to book our snorkel trip with American Pro Diving, located in Crystal River, right off Hwy 19. We were impressed with their affiliation with National Geographic, PADI, and Make A Wish Foundation, and we liked their manatee tour video.

We were off bright and early at 7:00 a.m. to catch up with our manatee friends. There was some uncertainty as to whether we would get a manatee encounter since the majority of manatees migrate away from Crystal River in the summer months. However, we were mostly optimistic we would get to swim with them.

American Pro Diving did not disappoint. Their new Dive Center was spacious and filled with everything you ever wanted to know or buy about manatees. After filling out the paperwork, we geared up with nice, clean wetsuits and snorkel equipment. The staff was great, very courteous and professional.

Next step was watching a short informational video about manatees and how they should be treated since they are endangered wild animals. Afterwards, we piled in our car for the short drive to Pete’s Pier, where our pontoon boat was put into King’s Bay.

We boarded the boat and got ready for our adventure. Our group consisted of 3 adults and 4 children ages 6-15.

Quinn, our guide gave us a short spiel on safety and then we were off.

We puttered out to King’s Bay and after an extremely short 5 minutes ride, we slipped into a quiet inlet and looked for a recently sighted manatee mom and calf.

Quinn dived in and while he didn’t spot the mom and baby, he did find a manatee having a seagrass breakfast. Several of us piled into the water to have a look for ourselves.

After a short 10-20 yard swim, we surrounded the manatee who kept right on having her seagrass breakfast. A group of about 4-5 of us were literally almost on top of her and she remained indifferent to us disturbing her breakfast. Closely related to the elephant, manatees are herbivorous, feasting daily on vegetation up to as much as 15% of their body weight. About 10 feet long and 1,000 lbs., an adult manatee spends 6 to 8 hours eating, and the rest of the day resting or traveling.

We scratched her skin, which was leathery, tough and taut, similar to the feel of a football. She was covered with algae which would get dislodged when we scratched her.

She must have liked the scratch massage with her breakfast because she rolled over and let us scratch her tummy. Then someone inadvertently kicked her tail, which she really did not like and she terminated our encounter by swiftly swimming away.

We knew we didn’t hurt her, but we did annoy her and as a result we were really careful to keep our fins to ourselves and out of the way.

We got back in the boat and puttered off to another location close by where we met at least 10 additional manatees, 2 of which were moms and their newborn calves. One newborn was only about 1-2 days old and looked like a small grey white sausage appended to a giant grey sausage. It was very cute.

We were cautioned not to herd the moms and newborns and definitely did not touch them.

Due to recent storms, water visibility was poor, so mask and snorkel were key to a good look at our manatee friends.

The children, while hesitant at first, got acclimated to the water and the strange slimy feel of the seagrass beneath them. Soon they were among the first to get close to the manatees and they hung right in there with them. Our manatee friends were so docile and friendly – it was as if we’d known each other all our lives. They were completely comfortable sharing their seagrass beds with us and letting us into their manatee habitat.

Our manatee encounter lasted about 2 hours and we met several different manatee friends. When we returned to the Dive Center, a DVD video of our encounter with underwater footage was played for us on the big screen. For $40, we declined to purchase, but it was a tough decision. All told the excursion plus the equipment rental (mask, snorkel, fins and wetsuit) cost $62 per person.

Everyone had a great time. For our next wildlife excursion, we’re thinking of getting scuba certified and diving in Florida’s Rainbow River where the water clarity is crystal clear.

Dolores Parker is a blogger for our sister site Downloadsquad.com. She lives in Florida and enjoys taking frequent trips off the beaten path.