Mermaids and manatees. I’m not really sure how Christopher Columbus confused the mythical beauties with the blubbery sea cow–too long at sea perhaps–but the fact remains that Columbus was one of the first to discover the gentle giants that are as synonymous with Florida as the American Alligator and Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin.
On a Sunday morning, Cori and I would be making our own discoveries by snorkeling with these carefree creatures. King’s Bay in Crystal River, Florida is one of the only places in the world where it is legal to swim with manatees without paying a hefty fine. I have seen many a manatee from various docks, and I even had a run in with a mating aggregation that you can read about here, but I have never been face to face with these thousand pound creatures.
I reserved our seats on the boat through American Pro Diving Center about four days prior to our trip. They offer trips at 7, 8:30, 12. Since we were driving from the Orlando area, we opted to reserve the 8:30 trip. A credit card is required to hold your reservation, but you can pay with any means you wish on the day of your trip.
By 6:45 we were in my car headed for Crystal Springs. It was an easy drive with little traffic so early on a Sunday morning. We arrived about 8:15. After signing waivers and credit card slips, we were directed to pick up our gear for the trip. Full wet suits, in nearly new condition, fins, masks and snorkels were all part of the package price. I opted to bring my own mask and snorkel. I knew we would be in fairly shallow water and may not even need fins, so I opted to use their fins while leaving mine at home.
There were about 40 people signed up for the 8:30 tour. I worried that this would turn into chaos with 40 people trying to surround the one or two manatees we might see. Thankfully, after watching a required manatee interaction video, we were divided into two groups of about 20. This was still a fairly large group, but it turned out to be a non-issue for most of our water time.
The video took about seven minutes and explained numerous ways we were not allowed to interact with the manatees. Chasing, surrounding, swimming over, two-handed touching, feeding, riding, punching…the list went on with the do nots of manatee interactions. Basically, we were asked to be passive observers and remain floating at the top of the water. If the manatee chose to approach you, that was great.
Rules explained, it was back to our car to head to the dock. Parking was an additional five dollars. After everyone had paid, we finally boarded the boat. It was nearly 10 at this time. Captain Mike went over all the safety feature of our boat and we were off, at idle speed, to search for the mistaken mermaids.
Within about 10 minutes we saw our first snout sticking out of the water before quickly diving back down. This continued for about a half an hour. We would find a manatee, observe it from the boat before moving on. According to Captain Mike, we were looking for a manatee that was not going to swim off as soon as we all got in the water.
It was starting to get a little warm in the wet suits, and I was dying to just jump into the water to cool down. Captain Mike gave us the go ahead, and one by one we tried to slide as silently as possible into the water. Right away there were two manatees. Our group further divided half following Captain Mike while the other half stayed near the boat to observe the creatures.
Cori and I choose to follow Captain Mike. We were able to float right over the feeding sea cow. Every three or four minutes she would surface, and we were able to see more than just her massive back and tale. Breath taken, she would sink back to the bottom and continue her quest for food. Our group of snorkelers was very polite, and each person was able to get as close to the manatees as they wanted as many times as they wanted.
While Cori found the mass of people overwhelming, I got as close as possible in order to try and capture some images on the GoPro. I spent about thirty minutes just observing the manatee feeding and breathing as she swam along an underwater fence. I even had the privilege of petting her algae covered skin. My hand skimmed her flipper in a kind of manatee handshake. Unfortunately, my GoPro skills leave much to be desired, and I did not capture this on video.
Then the dramatics started. Fortunately it had nothing to do with the manatees. Instead another boat captain from a rival company began to harass our tour group. This captain began taking video of our snorkelers saying how we were breaking all kinds of coast guard rules. Eventually Captain Mike returned to our boat and proceeded to get into a yelling match with the rival captain. It made for a few uncomfortable moments, but also some comedy as some of the other snorkelers around me started quoting Captain Phillips saying, “Listen to me. I am the captain now.” It was about that time the manatee we had all been following swam off. Manatees have extremely sensitive hearing and touch. In fact, their skin and hair can sense changes in barometric pressure allowing them to know where they should swim to avoid hurricanes and tropical storms. Apparently the yelling match between captains irritated our floating friend because she was off not to be seen by us again.
All too soon it was time to board the boat again. By now it was after 11. We had spent about an hour in the 72 degree water. With the wet suit I found that I did not think about the water temperature once. It also helped that it was warming up to be a 90+ degree day. I’m pretty sure I could have stayed in the water for hours.
Back on board, we peeled off our wet suits and enjoyed the 10 minute ride back to the dock. I was kind of surprised that we were required to return our gear to the dive shop. I think it would have been a nice service if they would have had crew collect it from us so that I didn’t have to put sopping wet suits and fins into my car. With that being my only complaint, I’d have to say that overall I really enjoyed the tour. Cori and I both decided that we would like to return during manatee season. It must be amazing when hundreds of manatees clog the river between November and March. I can only imaging the observation opportunities during that time of year. For now, though, we have our manatee memories to hold us over until our next adventure.