Finally I got of bed before dawn, in a motel room in Crystal River, Florida. I was here to do one thing, see manatees. West Indian manatees gather in the waters here when the temperatures are low, but when the temperatures are high the manatees are spread out throughout their range, across the Gulf and up the coast past the Carolinas. It had been one of the warmest winters in memory. So I was convinced that I would not see any manatees today, my one and only day in Crystal River.
I made a pot of motel coffee, and sipped the bitter stuff just as I opened the front door of my room. A strong and chilly breeze greeted me at the door. I smiled as I threw my wetsuit and snorkel gear in the car. When I felt that cold air enter my lungs, I knew instantly that my luck had changed. Today their would be manatees.
I got to Birds Underwater dive center while the sky was still black. Before long a group of around twenty of us had assembled in the store. We watched a short video about manatee etiquette and were off. Three minutes after pushing off, we saw our first manatee. It was in the middle of the canal, floating on the surface peacefully. Its nose was barely perceptible in the low light and murky water; instantly I truly understood how dangerous it is to be a mild-mannered manatee in the Florida waterways.
In another ten minutes we had arrived at our destination, Three Sisters Springs. I put on my mask and fins, and slipped into the chilly water. A large male manatee greeted me at the mouth of the springs. I laughed out in silly uncontrollable joy at seeing the beautiful animal swimming in the crystal clear water. It was an amazing feeling.
During the winter manatees are susceptible to hypothermia if ocean temperatures drop too low. They rely on warm fresh water springs like Three Sisters as a refuge from the cold. In some years, dozens, or even hundreds, of manatees will congregate in the small system of springs, literally clogging up the area in manatees. The manatees also come here to be groomed by small fish. They sit in silence while the fish pick away at their algae covered skin.
For the next six hours I watched the manatees, swam with them, and pet them on their swollen bellies when they asked for it. The animals seek out human interactions, swimming right up against people in the hopes of a nice scratch below the fin. They almost appear to smile, and have a disposition like that of a dog who is excited to see its owner. The animals can grow up to twelve feet in length and weigh 1200 pounds. If they weren’t such big cuddly teddy bears it would be highly disconcerting to have such a beast swim up to you.
In addition to the manatees, Three Sisters contains an intricate and beautiful assortment of life. There were big schools of snappers, snook, sunfish, alligator snapping turtles, and even cormorants swimming around chasing fish way too big to eat. That, combined with the clear spring water and nice light, made for the complete experience.
Later as I was filming a large male, a mother with two babies swam right up to me out of nowhere. The young manatees were adorable, and I later learned that a mother having two calves is rare, a single offspring being the norm. I spent the rest of the day interacting with two particularly playful young manatees.
After spending the better half of the day in the water with manatees, I returned to the shop with the awesome staff of Birds Underwater dive center. I was so grateful for the chance to be here for a day with the animals. I realized that I had achieved a lifelong dream – and with spectacular results.
Thanks for reading and please watch my video from the experience, and share it if you too want to cuddle with a manatee.