Nose-to-Nose with the Manatees
Photos: Courtesy of Homosassa Springs State
||I always knew I was destined to
swim with them, but until I finally did, I had no idea why? Truth
is, swimming with them is a life altering experience.
In one American state, waking up
one of these 2,000-pound sleeping beauties, will cost you a whopping
fine, but it is perfectly legal to dive, snorkel or swim with these
playful, inquisitive kids of the deep when they are awake and trying
to make your acquaintance.
latest trip took us to the manatees’ home turf, far away from the
modern-day animal refugee camps we have constructed and now call
aquariums. We aimed our
compass south to Florida's west central coast line and the Gulf of Mexico,
and it is here that we met one of the most formidable aquatic mammals.
County and Crystal River is less than an hour and half drive from Orlando,
Tampa or Daytona. In this fascinating little known corner of the U.S.,
Mother Nature's theme park features pristine rivers, trees dripping with
Spanish moss, lush woods and more wildlife than people. From December to
March, it is here that groups of manatees congregate. They have chosen to
escape the cold winter ocean and bask in the warm waters near power plants
and coastal clear water springs that stay about 72F degrees year-round.
and swimmers like us come from all over the world for a chance to swim or
interact with the gentle, docile West Indian manatee in its natural
environment. Numerous dive sites, inland springs, good underwater
visibility, calm water and its wintering manatee population have made
Citrus County a popular destination for nature lovers.
plant life makes the area a perfect playground for the manatees, who
arrive every year by the hundreds to find warmth, food and shelter, and
maybe, just maybe, to visit us, the curious humans. The area is also safe
for these endangered mammals whose lives are often cut short by
environmental factors and fatal encounters with speeding watercraft.
days in Citrus County started very early in the morning, as this is the
perfect time to snorkel with the manatees before they get tired of
visitors. We boarded a pontoon boat about 7 a.m., and as we cruised to
where we would snorkel, a gentle mist hugged the water. We were able to
observe the manatees as they maneuvered through the water. They are quite
agile for such a large animal, sometimes even doing barrel rolls in the
water. They slowly glided towards us using their paddle-like tail to
propell themselves up and down and, steering with their flippers, they
gracefully moving their 12-foot-long bodies through the water. Our boat
was soon surrounded by this gentle species.
minutes the captain stopped the engines, and we were soon given
instructions. Whatever you do, he said -- and it doesn’t matter how
excited you are -- remember the three golden rules: minimize splash noise;
act with very slow movements; and when
you do scratch one of these friendly, gentle gray giants on the back or
stomach, never touch with more than one hand at a time! Two hands are
illegal. The Endangered Species Act forbids touching a manatee unless it
touches you first, and they will let you know. Remember you need to let
the mammal make the first move.
rules are strict in Crystal River, and the protection of this endangered
species is taken very seriously. There is absolutely no chasing, riding or
harassing the manatees. But we can assure you these rules won't diminish
your unique experience in the least. Most of manatees here are very social
and will come to you. This is not a penned up, artificial setting with
captive animals. Here you are in a real river with real mammals free to
come and go as they choose, and they choose to be here because you might
show up and touch them.
slowly we entered the water, trying not to disturb them and also trying to
keep down the amount of sediment on the bottom of the river. Upon our
descent, some of the manatees were still sleeping while others were
slow-paddling around. Swimming with the manatees is actually not at all
difficult. There were young children as well as seniors on our trip, and
there was no hesitation about meeting up with these big guys. There was
only an abundant feeling of energy and curiosity among us all.
were truly amazed the first time we touched a manatee, which feels
somewhat like touching an elephant. They have thick brown-to-gray leathery
wrinkled skin; very tiny eyes, stiff whiskers dotting their mouth and very
wrinkled faces. Hair grows sparsely over their large body, and they appear
similar to a sea lion or walrus without tusks. They emit a repertory of
loud snorts and are believed to be close relatives of the elephant and a
small rodent-like animal known as a hyrax. Manatees are believed to have
evolved from a wading, plant-eating animal.
manatee is big, we’d say very big, measuring 10 to 15 feet and weighing
one ton, although some larger than 12 feet and weighing as much as 3,500
pounds have been recorded. Once you’re in their world, however, it's
hard to distinguish size. They devour over four to nine percent of their
body weight each day (200 pounds of greens) by eating five to eight hours
daily to maintain their rotund shape.
They're strictly herbivores, but they eat a great variety of
aquatic plant species, including water hyacinth, hydrilla and water
lettuce. Much to our surprise this official marine mammal of Florida is
often rest suspended just below the water's surface with only the snout
above water. They feed
underwater but surface for air periodically about every three to five
mintues. When dozing on the bottom, they balance on their head and tail,
bowing in the middle oblivious to the
fact that the world around them is moving much too fast for them and
may well be the last leisure generation left in the US.
are wild, although when we were looking at one nose-to-nose from our
scubapro snorkeling mask we had second thoughts about just how wild they
are. They turned over and bared their bellies for us to rub, swam
alongside and nibbled us.
We gave our newfound friends private time. Some glided away for
a little siesta, then they came back within a few minutes to find us for
yet another encounter.
in the water with our yellow Cressi fins captain asked Rob you want to
volunteer to go in first? one glance at the huge beasts and their faces;
and he declined his kind offer. But it took only minutes before
we cautiously began to snorkel, our tendency was to back up when we
saw the inquisitive ones approach us. Unlique the rest of our group who
thought they were big, dull animals with a face only a mother could love,
my husband Rob a Dutch man who like many Dutch had never seen one of these
and I despite their appearance, we just couldn’t help finding
them the most beautiful creatures of the sea,
but then again we both find elephant seals and walruses quite
attractive and charming.
swam in the inlets for a while, where the manatees prefer the warm,
shallow water and abundant sea grass. We then left the sanctuary and
headed toward deeper waters where, once again, we fastened our underwater
cameras to our arms and quietly lowered ourselves into the water.
found ourselves surrounded by a graceful underwater trio, a mum and two
younger manatees playing, two of which seemed to be kissing. We became
still, to quietly observe manatees in the water, is a thing of beauty.
Soon we felt the first nudge, and after that the manatees swam
around us seemingly oblivious to our presence. They twirled and spun
through the water, then would rest by our knees to be rubbed.
They seem to particularly enjoy being scratched under their
flippers. You never have to worry as these giants are always gentle.
land lubbers: not all
visitors want to get nose-to-nose with the manatees. The best place for
non- swimmers to view these endangered mammals is Homosassa Springs State
Wildlife Park, which showcases native Florida wildlife including alligators and the
American crocodile. The park, located 75 miles north of Tampa, is
impressive with 185 acres and a 45-foot deep natural spring that gushes
forth millions of gallons of fresh water per hour from more than thirty
Most importantly the park
provides refuge for captive-born manatees and a halfway house for
rehabilitating those who will be returned to the wild. Some manatees that
have been injured or orphaned will spend their lives in the park as they
are unable to survive in the wild. The park also serves as a research and
observation center, offering three daily educational programs to the
public. There is also a floating underwater observatory in the spring that
provides a fish eye view of the manatees -- the next best thing to
actually swimming with them. The huge windows allow visitors to view the
manatees at close range as they frolic, roll and enjoy their daily lettuce
is truly a mystique about these fascinating aquatic mammals. They are
loving, playful, loyal and charismatic creatures that people can watch
with delight for hours. Once you have swam next to a mother and her
newborn calf, it is inconceivable that anyone could hurt them. Like many
visitors, we left with unforgettable memories and became avid supporters
of protecting and preserving these friendly, docile creatures.
We believe there is hope that the manatee may yet be saved from
extinction, but the public needs to become aware of the problem.
like to encourage many more travelers like ourselves to learn about the
plight of these gentle giants by one little up-close and personal
encounter. For us, it was such an amazing and heart-felt experience that
we decided to become the proud adoptive
parents of a real manatee. We hope you’ll do the same and help ensure
that these beautiful creatures will continue to thrive for generations to
More About the Manatees
place manatees as members of the Sirenia
genus, the mythical sirens who were once believed to have lured ancient
Greek sailors to destruction. This evolved from the tale about a sailor
mistaking an upright, nursing dugong
for a mermaid. It is believed that Christopher Columbus was the first
European to report seeing a manatee in the New World, and to him and other
sailors who had been at sea for too long, manatees were also reminiscent
of mermaids -- the mythical half-fish, half-woman creatures of the ocean.
Manatees are, however not fish, but marine mammals.
are today four widely recognized species: the endangered Florida manatee (Trichechus
manatus), a subspecies
of the West Indian manatee, population numbers only 2,000 in the U.S.
Manatees are also found in the tropical and subtropical waters of the
Caribbean, northeastern South America and the Amazon (Trichechus
inunguis), West Africa (Trichechus
Indo-Pacific regions (Dugong
manatees were hunted by Native Americans and later by colonists. They
became victims, hunted almost to extinction. Manatee fat was used for lamp
oil, bones were used for medicinal purposes, and the hide for leather.
This hunting has been largely responsible for the manatee's initial
fifth species that once lived in Arctic waters of the Bering Straight, the
Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) were hunted to extinction within 27 years.
No Steller sea cow was ever collected for science, and drawings
made by naturalist Georg Steller's assistant
(1741) on the return leg of explorer Vitus Bering's first Russian
voyage to Alaska only briefly described it.
day extinction of the manatee is an issue that shouldn’t be dismissed.
Although manatees have no natural enemies or predators, as they are not territorial and have no known agenda, pretty much
they just swim, sleep and eat. They
do face threats from cold weather. Manatees, like people, are susceptible
to cold and hypothermia and cannot survive for extended periods when water
temperatures fall below 68F. Civilization, pollution and destruction of
their habitat by coastal development also affect their survival rate.
was the year manatees were listed as an endangered species considered in
danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
Florida also passed a law to protect manatees and designated the entire
state as a refuge through a Sanctuary Act.
was sad to learn that about 85 percent of adult manatees are identifiable
to researchers studying their behavior by unique scar patterns on their
bodies that result mostly from boat propeller injuries. Speeding boats run
over many manatees that are submerged just below the surface, killing them
either by impact with the boat itself or by slicing into their backs with
the propellers More than 43 percent of manatee deaths has been attributed
to human related factors.
record high for watercraft related manatee mortality was set two years
ago, according to post-mortem exams conducted in Florida. There were 240 deaths, many resulting from encounters with
boats, fishing line and traps. Death can result if the manatee's digestive
tract becomes blocked by fishing line accidentally eaten. Their algea-covered
bodies are also difficult for boaters to spot, and when they bobble up for
air or while swimming near the surface they cannot avoid the fast-moving
manatee population cannot easily rebound from these threats because of its
late breeding maturity and its low reproductive rate has been part of its downfall. The birth rate is not able to keep
up with those manatees killed by watercraft collision. Manatees can live
60 years and even longer, but because of humans, many die an early, tragic
Manatee Motherhood: The
most important bond in a manatee's life is with its mother.
Manatees reach maturity at approximately five years; one or rarely
two calves are born every two to three years after a gestation period of
13 months. Calves may be born at any time during the year. Cows may nurse
calves up to two years. Usually only one calf is born, but twins do occur.
Newborn calves weighing up to 70 pounds are 4½ feet long. They nurse
underwater for about three minutes at a time from a nipple located behind
their mother's forelimb. Born with teeth, calves begin eating plants
within a few weeks but remain with their mother for up to two years.
Manatees communicate with each other by emitting sounds underwater
that are audible to humans. The vocalizations, which sound like squeaks
and squeals, are especially important for maintaining contact between
mother and calf. One field report described a mother and her calf,
separated by a flood gate, calling to each other for three hours without
interruption until they were reunited.
following information will help you plan
your trip and enjoy your visit especially if you are
visiting for the first
time. October through March
is when manatees are in
For more information and driving
directions contact: Citrus
County Tourist Development Council 801 Southeast US Highway 19, Nature
Coast Trail, Crystal River, Florida 34429: Phone: 352-527-5223 or 800-587-6667; Fax: 352-527-5317,
How to get there?
The closest cities would be Crystal River, Inverness and Homosassa,
Florida. Less than 1½ hours drive from Orlando, Tampa or Daytona
airports. Regularly scheduled airlines offer
service and nonstop flights to these three cities. To contact
American Airlines Phone: 800-433-7300 to contact Delta Phone: 800-221-1212.
The town offers accommodations to suit every need, from modern resorts
to intimate guest houses. The Cottage at Shadowbright - a 1930's vine covered stone
cottage on almost 2 park-like acres Phone: 352-341-0546 contact Cathi ,
or visit their web site at www.bbonline.com/fl/shadowbright
Magnolia Glen Bed & Breakfast
- 800-881-4366 or 352-726-1832 Bonnie
Kuntz or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
What to bring with you: we’d
like to caution sun worshipers, if you plan on snorkeling you might not
want to forget your sunscreen. Like most warm destinations, sun protector
A wet suit is necessary if you decide to take this trip in the
later part of the year. For
your unique adventure, take along a sufficient waterproof disposable
camera to record your encounter with the manatees however many dive shop
operators make a video record for participants to purchase.
The best investment we did for this trip was with no doubt buying Ocean
Master’s dry snorkel. They
stay absolutely dry even when submerged in water and underwater you may
exhale through the snorkel and the one way valve will let out air without
letting in water better yet they’re guaranteed to last a lifetime.
This snorkel allows you to enjoy manatees for a longer period of
time under water without coming up for a breath or consequently
swallowing a lifetime's supply of iodine.
If you are investing in new snorkel equipment don’t hesitate
to give these a try we are delighted Victor Chale the Paragon snorkel
expert suggested it. Mask – any that fits your face comfortably and stays on without
the strap around your head is a good one. Fins
should be closed heeled with no booties- if you already have them
its OK. We recommend Fins
Cressi "freefrog" or Mares "Avanti".try to purchase
the best equipment that you can afford and if possible practice before you
go to assure proper fit and comfort to enhance your experience with the
manatees. Buy quality
snorkeling gear at a professional dive shop.
Weather: for a 24-hour weather forecasts, weather Labs publishes a
wide assortment of weather content for nearly 2,000 cities globally see
Weather Labs at http://www.WeatherLabs.com
To Scuba Dive or Snorkel
-- The refuge is accessible only by boat. We encouraged to plan ahead and
make reservations with one of the many dive shops and marinas in town for
a manatee snorkel tour. With several dive
shops in the area, your every need can be catered, including instruction,
guides, equipment rentals, even underwater video services. Although it is
possible to venture out on your own with a private or rented boat, it is
usually a better experience with a guide.
For your diving needs contact:
Bird's Underwater at 352-563-2763, Email: email@example.com
visit their web site at http://www.xtalwind.net/~bird/
Underwater 320 N.W. Hwy 19, Crystal River, FL 34429 (behind Dockside
Trading Co.), owned & operated by Bill (Bird) & Diana Oestreich
who know the subject of manatees intimately. Reservations are a must as
the trips regularly sell out. They also video tape each tour and there is
no better souvenir of your trip to Florida than Bird's gorgeously produced
video of you swimming alongside your new underwater friends.
Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park
9225 West Fishbowl Drive, Homosassa, Florida 34448 - Phone: 352-628-5343 or
352-628-4243 or visit their web site at http://ww.citrusdirectory.com/hsswp
every day including holidays from 9 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.
can we do as a citizen to help save the manatee? In the grand scheme
of things, educate others in the plight of the manatee, other protected
species and the environment. Consider adopting a Manatee. Not only a
great gift idea but they are worth it!!! Save
the Manatee Club, 500 N. Maitland Ave., Maitland, FL 32751 or visit on
the web at http://www.savethemanatee.org
More information and related links can be
see a photograph of the skeleton of a Steller's sea cow in the Helsinki
Museum, go to Ari Lampinen, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland. The text is
in Finnish, but the photo is worth the trip! http://www.jyu.fi/~ala/ilmasto/steller.htm
Belkis Kambach is the travel editor for
Finland-USA in Helsinki, Greenline and a frequent contributor to
Toronto’s Globe & the Mail and Epicurean. Married to a Dutch she
often writes about the Netherlands Antilles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
, or through her Web page, at http://home.att.net/~travelwriter/