At the time, it was summer, so while it is possible to swim with the full time residents of the Crystal River springs, it was not the best time for me to go. There are fewer manatees, they tend to be in deeper, murkier water and I was living in Amsterdam. All of these factors made me postpone this activity that was now in the top five of my must-do's, although to be fair, it was the third factor that held the most sway.
Then winter came about. This is the time that hundreds of gentle sea cows wisely choose to pack up and get out of the cold waters of the the Gulf of Mexico. These aquatic snowbirds flock to the spring fed King's Bay, which remains 72 degrees year round.
Until now. Last week, I found myself with two days off in Tampa. It is February, prime manatee season. This was happening! I was finally going to come face to whisker with these chubby mermaids. I had been googling "swimming with manatee" and researching the many companies that offer tours, so obviously that's why manatees were showing up in the 'trending' column of my facebook page. Look at the photo of those beautiful creatures, let me go ahead and click on the link. Motherfucker!! What do you mean Three Sisters, the most happening of all the manatee hangouts, is closed??? And because there are too many of them?!!! Manatee gods, why hast thou forsaken me?
Feeling defeated, I called River Ventures, the tour company I had decided to use, to see if maybe there was a chance that the park would reopen. It appears I was not alone. The poor woman I spoke to had obviously been fielding that question all morning long. What might have begun as mild irritation for her had boiled over into open contempt for the media. There was a kernel of truth to the story but she was quick to point out that only a small section of the waterways had been closed and only for a few hours before subsequently being reopened. The story had been exaggerated. No tours had been cancelled. No tours would be cancelled. We were back on!!
The next morning, we were there bright and early. Really early, the office had not even opened yet, but I did not want to take any chances. Once they did open, the very helpful staff showed us a video on the do's and don't of swimming with the manatees. The protocol is similar to the that of interacting with a stranger on a crowded subway car. No disturbing them when they are sleeping or nursing. No chasing them if they want nothing to do with you. If they engage you, one handed touching is ok, but no bear hugs.
The video stated that the manatee are curious and may come right up to us to check us out, but since they are wild creatures, this was not guaranteed. If we were really fortunate, we may get to see a baby nursing. Or maybe not.
With expectations firmly in check, we were fitted with wet suits. Did I mention the temperature outside was in the mid 50's? The thought of emerging from cold water into an even colder climate was something I kept trying to push to the back of my mind. There were manatee in those frigid waters. I would have to suck it up.
We were divided into two groups of roughly 4 or 5 each and introduced to our very cool captain, Donovan, an aquatic biologist. We soon set off in the pre-dawn light looking for our beauties.
It was cold. No question about it. I was soon wearing a sweatshirt over my wetsuit and thinking back to the scene in Titanic where Jack and Rose are floating amidst the chunks of ice.
Then Donovan spotted them. There in the middle of a canal, in perfectly clear water were a few of them languidly swimming by.
It was time to jump in. The sweatshirt came off and the camera went back into my bag. Donovan then became our photographer. I usually only post my own photos but these are just too cool not to share, so from this point on, all photos on this page were captured by Captain Donovan.
As we slowly climbed down the boat's ladder, careful not to splash and frighten the manatees, we got the first of many pleasant surprises. It really was not that cold. I mean it was cold, don't get me wrong, but not unbearably so. Or maybe my friends had just peed in the water. Either way, I was relieved (no pun intended). Coming out of the water later was a different story.
Mindful of all the rules, I floated in what the video called "the dead man's float", an appellation that probably did little to reassure my one friend that was convinced we were either going to drown or be devoured by these heretofore peaceful creatures.
After just a couple of minutes in the water, two graceful gray giants turned towards me and began swimming in my direction. I stayed still and watched as they descended a few inches and swam directly underneath me. It was beyond awesome!! Here we were in the water with these magnificent creatures. It doesn't get better than this.
|The pool noodles are meant to help in maintaining the dead man's float.|
Until it does. When another boat showed up, Capt. Donovan had us climb back up so we could go find another spot. There were enough manatees around that we did not need to share. We were getting our own manatees. It didn't take long to find an entire posse nestled in a small cove. The water here was even clearer, something I did not think was even possible.
As soon as we got in the water, one youngster came right up to my friend, Matt, and proceeded to nuzzle him.
Twice she did this and then she repeated the greeting with the French guy who was swimming alongside me and finally with me. Despite Capt. Donovan's repeated declarations that our new buddies were large toothless vegetarians, the fourth person in our group had done a quick manatee census, determined that there were more of them than of us and retreated to the boat, so she missed out on the love fest.
Days later when Matt started coming down with a cold, we theorized that it was probably due to this overly social, some would say slutty, manatee who goes around kissing anyone who enters her line of sight..although it needs to be pointed out she was swimming in Crystal River, a waterway named after an overweight stripper with a club foot.
Because everything was going our way, no sooner had we entered the cove than Capt. Donovan spotted a baby nursing on her sleeping mother. To the untrained eye, or anyone that is not familiar with manatee biology, it looked like the baby was face deep in mom's armpit, but nope. It was feeding time, manatee-style.
The cove was chock full of slumbering sea cows. While we could not pet or float directly over the sleepyheads, it was really cool to observe them. Since they are mammals, they need to take in air every 10-15 minutes, so every so often they just bob up to the top, take a breath and then sink back down, all without ever waking up. It's not exactly sleep-walking, more like sleep-bobbing but it is a trip to watch. Their movements reminded of those plastic birds that you would fill with water and watch as they bobbed up and down "drinking" out of a glass. Yes, I'm old.
|The fish are awake, I think I'll swim with them for a bit.|
For the next 30 minutes or so, we got to watch them undisturbed. We followed the rules and made sure not to disrupt their natural behaviors. However, not everyone was as considerate. After a while, a young-ish manatee woke up and decided that since he was awake, everyone else should be too. He went around squeaking and poking and prodding and just generally acting like a little dick, trying to rouse the others. It was hilarious.
I could have stayed in there all day, but after a while, the cold was just too much. The poor French guy was shaking like a leaf. It was time to return to the comfort of a heated vehicle.
It had been a long time in coming, too long really, but I had finally had a chance to swim with these fabulous animals. Not only that, there had been manatee kisses and a morning, undisturbed by crowds. Just us and them. It was better than I could have possibly imagined. Thank you, River Ventures and Capt. Donovan (and, of course, the slutty manatee) for making it so special.