Crystal River, a small town (3,500 people) in Citrus County, Florida, is the self-professed ‘Home of the Manatee’. The city is situated around Kings Bay, a coastal waterway which is fed by over 60 natural springs, keeping the water a constant 22 degrees Celsius (72 degrees Fahrenheit) year round. During the winter, when temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are lower, Kings Bay is home to over 400 manatees, who can’t tolerate water below 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit). It is also the only place in the United States where people can legally interact with manatees in the water.Manatees are large, herbivorous marine mammals sometimes called ‘sea cows’. They measure up to 12 feet (3.6 m) long and weigh as much as 3,900 pounds (1775 kg).
We were excited about the opportunity to see a manatee up close in the wild, but hadn’t made any plans yet to do this. When in doubt, have a beer and think about it. Over a beverage (or 2) at Burkes of Ireland, a small local pub with good beer on tap, we met 2 guides from American Pro Dive Center who said that if we showed up at their shop the next morning around 8 AM, we could join their guided tour, which at that time was very undersubscribed. We also met a nice accountant named Phillip who let us park The Dream Machine at his office overnight, so everything was working out great.
The next morning we arrived at American Pro, got outfitted with snorkeling gear (wet suit, fins, mask and snorkel), and followed our young captain Deanna down to the marina where she launched the pontoon boat we’d be using.
After Diane grabbed her last cup of coffee at the floating bait shop, we idled out into the marina. The only other clients on the boat were a young girl and her “mother’s partner” (she corrected me when I incorrectly assumed that he was her father). Not having done my usual amount of research (due to the Irish pub and the beer and the early start), I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that because we had arrived around the end of April, most of the manatees that spend the winter had headed back out into the warming waters of the gulf. But I learned that there was a resident population of about 20 manatees that spend all year in King’s Bay. We didn’t have to go far find one.
Manatees spend a lot of time sleeping in the water, surfacing for air periodically. They spend the rest of their time grazing in shallow waters at depths of 1–2 meters (3 – 7 feet). Although they have a large, powerful tail, when feeding they tend to use their stubby front flippers like legs, to anchor and pull themselves along the bottom.
King’s Bay is shallow but the water is dark and murky unless you’re very close to the vent of an underwater spring. It is sometimes possible to spot a manatee’s grey colour in the water (polarized sunglasses help), but normally they are noticed when they surface to breath, when the water roils from their swimming near the surface, or from their fart bubbles (apparently manatees are quite flatulent, but I suppose I would be too if I ate what they do).
We spotted our first manatee in about 10 minutes. Deanna anchored the boat and we donned our snorkeling gear as she got into the water. The visibility was terrible, the worst I’ve ever experienced in any water. I could literally ‘barely see my hand in front of my face’ with my arm outstretched. If anyone touched the bottom, stirring up muddy silt, the visibility dropped to zero. In the very shallow water, the less experienced snorkelers were encouraged to float on lifejackets to avoid stirring up the bottom.
Finding a manatee in the water under these conditions is difficult. It’s a bit like looking for a black rhino in the tall grass, you don’t realize you’ve found it until you run into it. We tracked our guide on the surface, swimming toward her snorkel, until a manatee suddenly emerged from the murk. With limited visibility, we could only see part of it at a time. Its head, munching through the weeds like a underwater mower. Its tail, broad and paddle shaped, not fluked like other marine mammals or its closest relative the dugong. Its back, scared by deep parallel cuts from a propeller.
There are an estimated 2000 to 5000 West Indian manatees in Florida (one of the 3 known species of manatee). They don’t have any natural predators, but they are threatened due to boating and human development in their coastal habitat It is illegal under Florida law to injure or harm a manatee, but their slow-moving, curious nature and preference for shallow water results in many collisions with boat propellers, leading to maiming, disfigurement, and even death. A large proportion of manatees have propeller scars on their backs.
Manatees are very peaceful, and generally oblivious to their observers.. We could get close enough to touch our manatee gently on the back, which feels like the rough skin of an elephant, complete with the stiff hairs that extend a couple of inches. He or she didn’t seem to mind this at all, and kept eating calmly. After about 10 minutes, our manatee swam away with powerful strokes of its tail. Manatees can swim up to 30 kph (20 mph) in short bursts.
And that was it. Although we spotted one other manatee, we couldn’t get close in the water. If they don’t want visitors, they won’t stick around. Except for nursing mothers and during breeding, manatees are generally solitary creatures, except when they’re sharing the warm spring waters of Florida each winter.
Even though we only saw one manatee, we enjoyed ourselves. We were glad to have observed (and felt) a wild manatee in its natural habitat. And, I was proud of Diane for snorkeling in such challenging conditions. Perhaps she’ll try scuba diving one day?