Thanks to VisitCitrus for sponsoring our tour and allowing us to discover an amazing part of Old Florida. As always, all opinions are completely my own based on my actual experience.
This was the morning I'd been waiting for. It was finally here!
Early December mornings in central Florida can be downright chilly at 46 degrees, and though I was super excited, I wasn't at all thrilled to be climbing into a wetsuit and into the water before 7:30 am.
The water was smooth as glass and the pontoon boat glided silently along, cutting through mist that clung to it like a wet veil. It was really beautiful. We stopped near another boat and a roped off area in the middle of King's Bay. The water was pitch black like my wetsuit, not at all like the crystal clear blue water I'd seen in the pictures.
Was something wrong???? Why are we stopping here? I thought....
"OK, who's first?" Captain Stacy interrupted my thoughts. She must have read the look on my face. "This sanctuary here is our first stop, then we'll go into the river, then to the Three Sisters Spring."
I must have uttered some discernible sound. "Don't worry, they generally don't come out in brackish water" she said with a wink. OK then, well that's good to know.
One by one we followed Captain Mike, slipping quietly into the black water, and I made sure to stay in the middle of everyone. If a gator was going to pick off one of us, it would be someone on the fringes and not me. The 5mm wetsuit was surprisingly toasty - not half as bad as I'd imagined. As I adjusted my mask and noodle and eased my breathing through the snorkel, I peered down into the water. I couldn't see a thing. The water was murky with about 15 feet of visibility, and the others and Captain Mike were just ahead of me. This was pretty underwhelming.
"Lori, behind you!" I heard Captain Mike say above the water and I paddled my arms around and around trying not to kick my feet as we were instructed for fear of kicking something - and came face to face. Two of them. Then a baby. Giant, floating gray torpedos and whiskers coming right toward me!
Holy sea cow! A quick sniff (kiss?) and it was gone.
Adorable Mermaids and an Endangered Species
First....a little background on manatees.
The West Indian manatees in Florida are passive, non-aggressive, vegetarian aquatic mammals. Adults can grow to up to 13 feet in length (10 feet is average) and weigh an average of 800-1,200 pounds, though they can reach up to 3,000 pounds! They have two front paddle-like flippers and a large single round paddle for a tail. They're roly-poly plump and torpedo-shaped, unusually homely and therefore completely adorable. In fact, Christopher Columbus, upon seeing manatees for the first time during his first trip to the Americas, wrote that he'd finally seen mermaids - and they were not quite as beautiful as originally thought! Because they are related to the elephant, they are thought to have very long memories, which may account for their trust toward, and memory of, humans, at least here. In the United States, manatees are especially docile and "friendly". In places like Honduras in Central America where they're still hunted for meat, they can be less so.
In the United States, they are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal. They're also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. The Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 describes two categories of declining species of plants and animals that need the Act's protections – endangered species and threatened species – and provides these definitions:
Endangered - any species that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range;
Threatened - any species that is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
In simple terms, Endangered species are at the brink of extinction now. Threatened species are likely to be at the brink in the near future.
(UPDATE: In 2017, the State of Florida downgraded the manatee as a species that is "endangered" to that of "threatened".)
Should You Swim With Them?
So you can see why interacting in the water with an endangered species like manatees would be controversial. Manatees are one of only several endangered species I'm aware of that you can "swim with" in their natural habitat - the others being the whale shark and humpback whale. If you don’t think too deeply about it, a "swim-with" experience may seem like a unique, harmless way to get an up-close look at some of the world’s sea animals. But what many people don’t know or haven’t fully considered is that most attractions designed to expose humans to wild creatures don’t enhance the lives of the animals involved. There's simply no way for humans to interact with animals in their natural environment without having some impact. From a purely natural point of view, if we're not part of their natural habitat, we simply don't belong. This is why, when offered the opportunity to do a swimming "tour" with them, I gave it a lot of thought and was reluctant at first.
On the Other Hand
On the other hand, these up close and personal tours can deliver an important educational message and have a lifelong impression on us humans about conservation and eco-tourism standards that not only protect the viewed species but ensure their vitality for generations to come.
Because of the size disparity between humans and whales, I'm less inclined to think we impact whale sharks and humpback whales as much as we do manatees. Manatees are different. They're slow-moving (but can disappear like a shot with one swipe of their tail), are naturally docile and curious of humans. So we can potentially have a much greater impact - and disruption - on them and their behaviors such as feeding, nursing, mating, or just playing.
Organized Swim with Dolphin programs started this up close and personal phenomenon about 25 years ago, and involve dolphins in captivity. Tours with whale sharks and humpback whales are obviously done in their natural environment due to their immense size and vast areas needed for them to move around and feed. I swam with dolphins once at a resort in Hawaii. Far from an ecological experience, it was like being in the pool at Sea World - little more than a unique selfie photo op with a dolphin. But it was an awesome selfie at that! Swimming with great white sharks in Australia and South Africa doesn't exactly allow you to swim with them for obvious reasons, so you're understandably locked in a steel cage. Even swimming with alligators has become popular. That's right, for a hefty price, you too can immerse yourself in a thick, lucite tube and be lowered into an alligator's natural habitat.
So when it comes to swimming with an endangered species like the manatee, it's one of the world's most unique adventures and truly a rare opportunity. And Crystal River, Florida is the only place I know of where you can do this. Every winter, from December through March, hundreds of manatees migrate into the warm waters and natural springs around King's Bay in Citrus County, to avoid hypothermia as the Gulf of Mexico cools down. The warm spring water in the famous Three Sisters Springs and others springs around it remain a constant 72 degrees (F) and offer a refuge for the manatees to stay safe and warm. It's a completely unique and natural occurrence here, and the City of Crystal River and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have taken great strides to ensure the long-term protection and viability of this natural tourism resource.
Some say that swimming with manatees is irresponsible and detrimental to the mammals. Predictably, others complain that stricter regulations (safeguards) unnecessarily impact income potential and tourism. While I'm in favor of strong economic development, I won't ever support tourism that in the end destroys what it's about in the first place. I'm not here to debate what's right or wrong for manatees or humans. But after having the chance to get in the water with them, I did learn a few things. One of the most important is that not all tours (or "eco-tours") are created equal.
Crystal River has dozens of Swim With Manatees tour operators who will be happy to show you manatees any time of year. But be aware! As you'll find anywhere you travel, not all tour operators are as eco-conscious or responsible in helping to protect the manatees. I'm so thankful I discovered Manatees in Paradise. Captains Mike and Stacy Dunn have been running small, educational tours since 2008 in the "true passive" manor required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Practice Passive Observation of the manatees and you'll have a great tour, and ensure the future health and well-being of the manatees.
Ask Before You Book!
1. Do You Offer Tours Any Time of Year?
It's possible to see manatees in the river during other times of the year, but your best time to see them up close is the winter months. Therefore, many tour operators may take the summer months off since the manatees are further out in the Gulf that time of year. Swimmers/snorkelers and paddlers are allowed inside the Three Sisters Springs (boats are not), but roped-off sanctuaries are off-limits to everyone, and meant to protect the manatees from disruption of their natural behaviors. If you're looking for a leisurely sightseeing tour, that's fine. But if you actually want to see manatees, consider the time of year and ask about recent sightings.
2. How Do You Prepare Snorkelers Ahead of the Tour?
When we met Captain Stacy and Mike Dunn from Manatees in Paradise at the dive shop in Crystal River, we watched a mandatory :10 minute video - Manatee Manners - on the proper way to interact with manatees. About 30 of us watched the video in the dive shop - 6 of us on our tour, and one other tour with the rest. Your guide(s) should be familiar with each person's experience level before you head out, whether through email or one-on-one chats. If at any time you don't feel comfortable, or you're confused about what to do or how to act, ask!
3. How Large Are Your Tours?
Look for operators who offer smaller group tours with no more than 6-10 people. This tells you a few things: 1) your guide can offer personal attention and a higher degree of safety. Let's face it, swimming around dark water where you can't see or rest your feet on the bottom ain't for everyone, and you may not realize it until you're in that situation and find yourself in a panic! And 2) smaller groups mean more quality time observing the manatees and less thrashing around, bumping into others, and bumping into the manatees.
4. How Passionate (and Knowledgeable) Are You About Manatees?
Don't feel bad asking this - it's a legitimate question. As with any kind of tour, you'll quickly get a sense for how passionate - versus remotely interested - the tour operator is. Ask just one question about anything to do with manatees or the tour, and you'll know. If you hear more information than you'll ever need in your lifetime, that speaks volumes about the level of care you and the manatees will likely receive. If not, you may have caught someone on a bad day. But chances are, they care more about your fare than anything else. Check out their website. Look for any pertinent education, accolades and awards, and the work they're doing in their community to protect this natural resource!
We were so impressed with Captains Mike and Stacy. They are well known in the Crystal River community as active advocates for manatee protection. They participate in annual census and manatee health assessments, assist the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission with first aid and emergency manatee care, and are passionate public educators on the subject of manatees and how best to interact with them.
Details and Snorkeling Protocol
Several additional things I learned that make a difference:
- No fins! Some tour operators DO NOT use fins in their tours - and that's a very good thing! Look for the ones who do not! Fins stir up the bottom floor in the shallow springs creating poor visibility and potentially leading to greater erosion of the spring walls. They are also potentially harmful to the manatees you'll encounter.
- No jumping into the water! If you can't see what's in the water, you also can't see the manatees that are most certainly there and blending in with their surroundings.
- Passive Observations always! To ensure the success of swimming with manatees, we must all do our part. Look but don't touch. They may very well touch you. Consider your good luck! But don't reciprocate. Float with them, but don't block or separate them from their group, especially babies from their mothers.
In a word, the tour was amazing! It was a day I will always remember, interacting with and photographing these "gentle giants" as they're often called.
I was even lifted out of the water more than once as they swam underneath me.
After seeing for myself, I believe it IS possible - though challenging - to balance responsible tourism with an interactive eco-tour of an endangered or threatened species. Our natural curiosity can lead us astray by wanting to get too close. It's human nature. The docile manatee fools us into romanticizing and treating them in ways other than for what they truly are - wildlife. But with education and a firm commitment to protection and responsible tourism, I believe a tour like this can actually be a valuable tool for their future protection. Because once you're kissed by a manatee, you're their advocate for life!
Want to see more? Check out the full PhotoTour.
If You Go
December through March is the prime time to see manatees as they head in to the warmer waters of Crystal River. Keep an eye on the temperature. Manatees follow warm water, so an unseasonable cold snap (even one day) means better viewing in the springs.
Recommended Tour Operator
Manatees in Paradise, Captains Mike and Stacy Dunn - 1223 N. Circle Drive, Crystal River, FL 34429; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scenic, educational, small group manatee tours.
For More Information
Visit Citrus County & Citrus County Visitors Bureau - 915 N. Suncoast Blvd, Crystal River, Florida 34429. email@example.com
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - 1502 S.E. Kings Bay Drive, Crystal River, FL 34429