I flew down to visit my friend for MLK weekend. It was a rather cold weekend for Florida – in the 40s and 50s – but that was the point! Because when it gets cold, the Manatees get cold, too, and head for the springs of Crystal River.
Manatees may have inspired stories about the mermaids of yore as they are roughly human-sized, but are actually more closely related to elephants. They live in both fresh and salt water and are herbivores, spending most of their lives eating seaweed. Despite their rotund appearance, they don’t have body fat or blubber like whales, and can die when the water temperature gets too cold, below 68 degrees. So, to stay warm in the winter, they head for Crystal River in Central Florida, where the water temperature is in the 70s year-round.
Manatees were on the endangered species list until 2017 because their numbers were decimated by boat strikes and habitat loss. Thankfully, the population has rebounded due to special protections. In the 1970s, just a few hundred manatees remained in Florida. Now, there are over six thousand. They remain threatened and special protections are in place.
I traveled with my friend and his family up to Crystal River where we took a manatee boat tour. We chose to go with the Plantation on Crystal River Hotel tour. Upon arrival, we were briefed on manatee safety via video in the shop. We were instructed that we were not to harass or ride the manatees in any way. They could approach and touch us if they wanted to, but we were not to chase after them if they wanted to be left alone.
We put on 5-millimeter wetsuits (I also put on my hooded LavaCore and a surf top — I get cold easily!) and took a boat down the river to an area where we could see several manatees close to the surface. It was pretty crowded – there were lots of boats, kayaks, and tourists watching by the shore. Our captain informed us that it was actually a Manatee festival weekend, which was the reason for the crowds.
We did not realize it, but when the air temperature gets a bit too cold, the government automatically closes certain areas where the manatees huddle together for warmth – Three Sisters Spring. This site also happens to be the place with the best visibility. Sadly for us, there were tons of manatees behind a barred off section with clear blue-green water, but we would not be allowed to get too close to them. Perhaps going on the coldest weekend of the year was not the best idea, after all. There were so many manatees seeking warmth that they needed extra protection and some privacy. Still with all the tourists lurking in their habitat, and their fragility to temperature, it made sense and it was the best choice to protect the manatees.
On the other hand, other areas of the river were open and there were still more than enough manatees to interact with, although the visibility was not ideal. Our guide jumped in the water and seemed to tickle one manatee who approached him, recognizing an old friend.
We followed after our guide and got close. Really close! I could see the rough patches of skin and the hairs they use to sense their surroundings (they are virtually blind and use the sense of proprioception to “see”). Suddenly, I could feel the manatee’s rough skin rub on my hand as I floated next to him. In a moment, he floated off, his mermaid-like tail trailing behind.
One thing that struck me about the manatees is how small their eyes were compared to other marine mammals I had encountered (dolphins, humpbacks and seals). They are unique in that their hairs allow them to create a map of the outside world. In fact, as soon as any of the swimmers started to kick vigorously, the manatees sensed it and quickly floated away.
This interaction was followed by several others. The manatees were curious but floated away once too many people got close. Our guide explained that by the afternoon, they actually get quite tired of the interaction, so perhaps a return trip during the morning might be a good idea in the future. One little manatee decided to chew on a rope that was tied to the boat, which was simply adorable. After getting back on the boat, we warmed up with some yummy hot chocolate.
In addition to encountering a unique new marine mammal up close, it was really fun to introduce some younger members of my friend’s family to a unique water creature. His sister now plans to get scuba certified! Meeting the manatees is a great way to get non-divers excited to take the next steps to meet more incredible underwater wildlife. It is also a great example of how special protections for endangered marine animals can lead to a recovery success story.