Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River, FL

Snorkeling with manatees was on our lifelong dream list. To accomplish the deed we took a thousand mile sidetrack in a chilly February to Crystal River, Florida. Then, as we drove from Atlanta south, the temperature reports grew worse. The newest weather reports indicated it would be 28 degrees in the morning. Uh, oh.

Captain Mike’s, in Homossassa, which has a big web and business presence, had heated, private boats. But those were booked for the day. Oh well.  We resigned ourselves to birdwatching instead of manatee snorkeling, if necessary.

But we found an outfitter that had morning and thank heavens, afternoon departures. The guides at Crystal River Resort, the nice lodge where we were staying, had at 7:30 am departure when it was still 28 degrees. Leave that to the extremely hardy.

Manatees swim up into the waters of Crystal River to reach relatively warm water. The used to only come in the winter. But smaller numbers now stay year round. We had come in February, the peak of their density in the waterways.

We’d been told that the manatees were most active in the morning. But we’d also heard that when the weather was this cold, manatee watching should be fine all day long. (I had to wonder what difference morning temperature would make to a creature in water of fairly constant 72 degrees.  But what did I know? I wasn’t onsite with the creatures. These people were. )

We arranged to go on a 1pm tour. At 12:15 we were there, wetsuits and snorkel gear in hand. Our suits were 3 mil thickness. This operator only had 3 mil wetsuits. We remembered that another operator, at the Plantation Inn, had 5 mil wetsuits. We expressed concern. The guide divulged that she often wore two wetsuits for warmth. Well, that sounded good. We each rented a second long wetsuit to go under our own, shorter ones.

Okay, so you’re thinking we are cold wimps. Yes sirree, Bob! We’ve been in it, and we do not enjoy it. 72 degree water, in case you’ve never been in it, is far different from 72 degree air.  Water wicks away heat. In the Galapagos, we snorkeled in 74 degree water, and it was frigid. Even with a shorty wetsuit, you shiver tremendously after 30 or so minutes in the water. Plus, snorkeling is generally not a very active sport. This is particularly true if you are being respectful of wildlife and trying to observe it. The goal is to use your legs to propel yourself and gentle kick. You really don’t use your arms.

So, suited up in our double wetsuits, approximating stuffed sausages images of Jacques Cousteau, we watched the manatee informational/rules video. It covered some of the conservation threats and very briefly, how to behave around a manatee. Do not pursue them. Passively watch them. It’s okay to touch them if they approach you. If you touch them, do so with only one hand.

We boarded the boat and began our adventure. We boarded the boat and began our adventure. There were 11 of us. Two children, maybe ages 6 and 9, with their own diminutive wetsuits. They seemed seasoned as snorkelers.

We chugged down the canal. We slipped into the water. It was cold. Very cold. But the manatee encounters were wonderful. The water was stirred up—lots of flecks of dirts. Some manatees stayed in their safe areas, beyond ropes and buoys where we could not go. But you could swim along the edge and see the manatees inside. Frankly, this would have been enough.

But there was more. We moved up into a spring with beautiful dark trees hanging overhead. Some kind of needlefish swam just below the water’s surface. There were several species of fish that reminded me of what we see in tropical waters. And, beneath, were manatees.

You’d look and look for them. Then suddenly, you’d look down and there they were, swimming right below you, a few feet away. We heard a baby call to its mothers. One swam under me and I reached out and felt its algae-covered back as it passed. We saw fish schools swarm on these algae-lawn covered manatees, presumably dining on the greens.

We stayed in the water for more than an hour. Not too smart. When we got out, my legs barely worked and my speech was slurred. I was that cold. If you stop shivering and get confused, you’re too cold folks. Most of the smarter folks were already on the boat, where they served hot chocolate and something sweet to eat. That was the best hot chocolate in the world.

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