He has much more to fear than I. Humans have not been kind to manatees. Deaths due to boat strikes, pollution, and habitat loss keep the animals in trouble and the population of this endangered species is less than 3,000. But their plight has had some positive benefits--they receive lots of publicity and public support is growing to save them. As a result, they are popular animals and practically everyone knows about them: large as a cow, slow moving, gentle, appealing.
Because of this popularity, thousands of adventurers flock to Florida each winter to swim with them and watch them up close. Perhaps the best place to mingle with manatees is in the clear water of Crystal River just below the panhandle on the West coast.
To understand why this is the place to go, you need to know a little about what makes manatees tick. They are warm-blooded mammals, very sensitive to water temperatures. The arrival of cold weather finds them seeking out warm water around power plant outlets and springs. Such springs exist in Crystal River and from October through about April, dozens—sometimes hundreds—of manatees congregate in the river near the 72-degree waters of the springs.
This results in another congregation: people. Crystal River’s shallow shoals, clear water, and abundant manatees mean excellent viewing and on winter weekends hundreds of wet-suited manatee enthusiasts are snorkeling off of pontoon boats anchored around the river.
This winter, we joined the snorkelers in the town of Crystal River, about two hours south of Tallahassee, and hooked up with Diane Oestreich of Bird’s Underwater Dive Center. On a cool and cloudless December morning we meet her at the dive shop she and her husband run on the edge of Crystal River—at an ungodly six o’clock in the morning.
Two dozen sleepy manatee maniacs are milling around the dock, shivering in the early morning chill and eager to get into the water and see a manatee. But first Diane makes sure that we see, but don’t harm. We will be snorkeling around the fringes of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, which has stiff regulations to protect manatees. Diane shows a video and gives us a short lecture on “manatee manners”—that is, not harassing the animals.
I am not a morning person so I have to ask Diane if the early shove off time is necessary or if she just has a sadistic streak.
“The earlier you go, the better visibility you’ll have,” she says “Get one group of divers in the water and things get stirred up quick. We want to get out first while visibility is still good.”
As we pull away from the dock I look over the pontoon’s railing and can’t imagine visibility being any better. The still water is crystal clear (Hmmm, wonder how the river got its name?). If there are manatees here they will be easy to spot.
We head on to Three Sisters Springs, a small spring in a shady tributary and drop anchor. Diana drops over the side of the boat and swims toward the spring. I throw on my flippers, pull my mask down and join her in the water, taking care to remain out of the roped off “off limits” area that gives the manatees some refuge from divers. I barely have time to take my first breath when a huge adult manatee swims alongside me.
I have dived with manatees many times, but it is still thrilling to me. This is truly one of nature’s magnificent creatures, a huge lumbering beast with a gentle demeanor. Individual animals also have unique personalities. Some like to interact with humans, others don’t. This one wants to be touched. He sidles up to me and I oblige him. As I rub his flank, he pirouettes over on his back. I rub his exposed belly and his “armpits” (behind his flippers) while he lays motionless, enjoying the moment.
We spend most of the morning at Three Sisters, swimming with and watching seven manatees, most of them continually coming up to us to look us over. About mid morning, we head out into the open water of Crystal River and Diana drops anchor near King’s Spring, a large spring in an open channel near Banana Island. Manatees congregate here too, but when we arrive there are two pontoon boats in the area and the water is filled with people. We see only one; a large adult with boat-propeller scars across her back who doesn’t want to have anything to do with us and quickly disappears into the off-limits area. So we amuse ourselves by swimming through the center of swarming schools of silvery mullet that part and swirl around us as.
That evening we sit on a deck overlooking the river and watch two river otters splash and play as the sun slips away. Somewhere out there with the otters a family of manatees is calmly munching away, oblivious to the perils they face but waiting to capture the hearts of another crowd of curious visitors.
There are a number of dive shops in town but based on our experience one of the best is Bird’s Underwater Dive Center. They showed a strong conservation ethic and seemed to have the welfare of the manatees at heart. Contact Bird’s at 352-563-2763, http://www.birdsunderwater.com/.
(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)