I’ve heard about many people taking advantage of the opportunity to swim with the dolphins in places like Florida and Hawaii. It always sounded wonderful, but I either never had the time or the money to do so myself. During my most recent visit to Florida, I had the chance to visit Crystal River, one of the only places I’m aware of where it’s possible to swim with manatees, those lumbering, herbivore, aquatic, mammals nicknamed “sea cows.” So who needs dolphins? They’re slender and graceful and would make me feel self-conscious and body shamed. I opted to swim with the sea cows, whose bulky 1,000+ pound bodies would make me feel as slender as a dolphin!
After some research online I signed up for a “semi-private tour” with Plantation Adventures in Crystal River. The maximum number of people on the tour was 6 and I opted to do the earliest trip, 6:30AM. Evidently the manatees crowd into the river on cold mornings and go further out to sea as the days warm up. I was glad I opted both for the smaller tour and the first departure, as by the time our group was returning, the area was becoming clogged by loud, splashing people floating around on fun noodles. We, in contrast, enjoyed some real private time with the manatees.
Leaving my motel at 6:00 AM, a full three hours before my usual rising time and seeing that the temperature was 38 degrees, I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into, but I was excited about this adventure. I arrived at the boat’s departure point, and was issued my well-insulated wet suit. To my amazement, it fit like a glove and was comfortable and provides both warmth and buoyancy. We then listened to a short briefing about how to behave around the manatees: let them initiate any contact, don’t chase them, don’t disturb them when they are resting on the bottom, do not feed them, and of course, don’t try to ride them. We all looked at one another and shook our heads with sad laughter at the thought that anyone would need to be told this.
So off we went, with Captain Dan and our guide/photographer Courtney. The boat ride to the swimming area took less than 10 minutes and as we anchored, the water’s surface was broken by unusual patterns of water indicating that a manatee was just below and occasionally, a gray snout poked out above the surface. There seemed to be a lot of animals in the area, but I had no idea just how many. I’ve been on whale watches, dolphin tours, and manta ray expeditions, and in each case felt happy to see two or three of whichever animal we were seeking. As we climbed down the ladder from the boat there were at least three manatees hanging out and seeming to gnaw on the anchor ropes of our boat with their toothless gums as if they were sucking on pacifiers. I loved these creatures already.
For the next hour and a half we snorkeled amidst these enormous animals. The biggest problem I had during this time was not a leaky snorkel mask or being cold; it was trying not to run into a manatee by mistake. They were literally everywhere! They are not at all shy creatures and according to our guides, have very poor eyesight, so they like to get up close to something to check it out. They also have a natural curiosity fueled by the fact that they have no natural predators. They were curious all right! They slowly paddled right up to my face, looking seemingly into my very soul with their dark eyes. They seemed to enjoy gently nibbling on my wet suit, and when I would brush against one, often by accident, it was quick to roll over on its back like a puppy wanting a belly rub. I followed Courtney’s lead and when one of the manatees would initiate this contact, I obliged with a belly rub.
We saw babies that were about a year old and maybe 4 feet long, and then huge adults that were 3 times my size, and even a few cases of adults attempting to mate, which we were told to steer clear of! Courtney told us that it was one of the very best days she had seen in a long time in terms of sheer numbers of manatees and estimated that there may have been 150 or so in the area that morning. Not once did I feel threatened or nervous, which was a wonderful experience. To interact with a creature this big that can really not do you any harm is a rare treat! One online site I looked at said that the only way a manatee might hurt you is to bump into you because they are so big, but that in most cases, it’s simply like being hit by a big pillow, and I would concur. I also read that these animals are probably most closely related to elephants, which I thought was fascinating. They also may be responsible for spawning legends about mermaids, though evidently Christopher Columbus observed some of them and commented that their faces had rather masculine features for a mermaid!
All too soon it was time to head back to civilization. To my amazement, my fellow passengers emerged from the water and were shivering from the cold, while I was perfectly comfortable after all that time in the water, which was about 68 degrees. Captain Dan served hot chocolate and Courtney made all the photos she’d taken with us available for us to purchase, so I can’t take credit for any of the manatee photos in this blog post.
I have to say, I really loved this whole area of Florida. The towns of Homosassa Springs and Inverness are charming, with lots of lush foliage and while the beaches are nothing like those in the Florida Panhandle or further south near St. Petersburg, there were a few quiet places to soak in the Gulf.
I’m so glad I got to meet the manatees. Unlike other similar types of excursions that have left me with a feeling of wanting more, I felt perfectly content and happy with this experience. Off I went to a local restaurant for some cinnamon swirl pancakes, only wishing I could have invited one of my new friends to join me!