Diving with manatees in Crystal River, Florida

Check out our Youtube video of the trip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmCMCkwJ-o0

Occasionally, you might say to yourself, “Hey, I wonder what a 600-pound baked potato with fins would look like??”

manatee
A manatee face-to-face…right before it sneezed on me.

If you find yourself asking such questions, you might want to increase your medication.  That, or drive to Crystal River, Florida and go snorkeling with manatees!

Our crew hit the road last week for a spring-break trip to Florida, specifically the area where the panhandle is attached to the rest of the state.  Here, in the wilderness of pine trees and crackers, there isn’t much in the way of tourism unless your idea of fun is being cold and wet while visiting one of the most incredible ecosystems on the planet, the massive freshwater springs of northern Florida.

Due to limestone that underlies most of the area, northern Florida is pock-marked with springs of all shapes and sizes.  Some of them, such as our camping destination of Rainbow Springs, produce 490 million gallons a day of sparkling, 72-degree water.  Amazingly, there are  three springs in Florida that are even larger!  All that spring water makes for spectacular tourist destinations such as world famous Homasassa, Silver and Weeki-Watchi springs.

snorkelOur basecamp was at Rainbow Springs State Park campground, separated by seven miles from the “headspring” of Rainbow Springs.  The campground, like all of the Florida facilities we have visited, are first rate and there were no complaints aside from the bongo-playing maestro who serenaded us throughout the last evening.

However, payment was extracted when a posse of the locally over-abundant armadillos converged around 2 a.m. to sample the leftover eggs and cheese crackers that someone had surreptitiously distributed around their campsite.   Apparently crazed opposum-on-the-halfshell sounds just like a Florida black bear when fighting over cheese crackers in the wee hours.  At least it would seem, judging by the screams wafting across the warm breeze.

Along the way we visited prehistoric Indian mounds that put anything in Indiana to shame and spent one afternoon hiking on a rather disappointing trail through scrubby pine hammock.  The scenery was somewhat dull but the possibility of a large eastern diamondback rattlesnake lurking under a palmetto frond managed to keep you vigilant while walking.  At one point, an anole lizard skittered across my boots and nearly caused a terminal infarction.

The primary reason for our adventure was a manatee snorkeling trip with Bird’s Underwater.

diverThe springs of Florida are the winter destination for huge numbers of West Indian manatees, otherwise known as the “sea cow.”  The gentle, slow-moving herbivores gather in huge groups to crowd into the warmer spring waters that essentially turn into a giant manatee spa between December-March.  These congregations of the endangered sea mammal have become a huge tourist industry in places like Crystal River.

So, arriving at an ungodly early hour, we suited up in the dark, met Captain Steve and headed out of the dock just as the sun had turned the eastern horizon into melted orange sherbet.

I have visited the area year before but was surprised to learn on this trip that April is actually the worse month for seeing manatees.  This month, the manatees typically move down the river to the Gulf of Mexico to feed once the waters have warmed up and the springs are no longer significantly warmer than anywhere else. Then, after a few weeks of feeding on grasses, the resident animals move back into the bay and springs.

Knowing this, Capt. Steve made sure we were the first boat out of the dock and the first people in the water. Within 10 minutes, we saw manatees and for the next 2 hours, we had three animals under and around our boat, gnawing on the anchor line, scratching their back on the dive ladder and generally hanging around in spite of the growing herd of snorkelers. Though the guides did a thorough job of explaining the rules about “passive observation” and exhorting over-excited guests while in the water, several swimmers were too aggressive with the animals and rudely shoved other snorkelers out their way.  There was one large Fraulein from Germany who is lucky I wasn’t allowed to carry my diving knife.

Fortunately, our manatees were sociable and didn’t seem to mind the commotion.  A large female even seemed to enjoy the watery sideshow.

The water in the bay isn’t exactly drinking-water clear like in the brochures but is certainly fine for manatee observation but keep that in mind when booking an April trip. The water was around 10-15 deep and you could barely see the bottom. A weak swimmer in our group was initially nervous but the combination of wetsuit, “pool floatie,” keen observation by the guides and excitement of seeing the animals put him at ease.

The water is brisk, possibly cold depending on your outlook. It was around 72 degrees, which might not seem too chilly but even in a wetsuit, you’ll probably get cold after a while. The two lean teenagers in our group were shivering.  Fortunately, Capt. Steve provided Duncan Donuts and hot chocolate on the boat to stoke the internal fires with a little warmth and sugar.  In my case, having been on a diet for several months, that powdered lump of dough was perhaps the single greatest doughnut I’ve ever eaten.  I’ve built a small shrine to it in my office.

After hanging out with the manatees, we headed to Three Sisters Spring.  Swimmers are not allowed inside during the winter manatee season but after March 31 it is permissible.  With water that is literally more clear than what comes from your tap, this area was the highlight of my trip.  It’s hard to describe but imagine swimming on the set of a Hollywood Tarzan movie and you’ll get the idea.  Actually, the old Tarzan movies were filmed down the road at nearby Silver Springs.

So, in an effort to provide useful information and take the whole trip off my taxes, here are my recommendations if you want to go snorkeling with the manatees:

  • The Crystal River, Florida area has the biggest concentration of snorkeling companies and the largest crowds but the best chance (around 110%) of seeing a manatee.
  • Go earlier in the week to avoid those crowds.  If you book with Bird’s, you’ll need to check in a 6:00 a.m. but it’s worth the early hour to leave the dock before many of the other companies.  We were back on shore by noon.
  • April is workable if you want to see manatees but try to schedule Dec-Mar if you want to see large numbers in clearer water of the springs.
  • Capt. Steve at Bird’s was entertaining, knowledgeable and worked hard to get us into position to enjoy both the manatees and springs. If we go back, we’ll ask for Capt. Steve.  On the other hand, he claimed manatees can swim at 35 miles per hour, so perhaps we need to check his references.
  • When swimming with manatees, calm down, relax, stop thrashing about and be more passive. You’ll have better visibility, spend more time with animals and have a better trip overall.
  • The take-away: Swimming with manatees is the best $47.00 tour you’ll take in Florida.

Resources:

Bird’s Underwater Inc. website: http://www.birdsunderwater.com/

Rainbow Springs State Park: http://www.floridastateparks.org/rainbowsprings/default.cfm

Wikipedia entry for manatee: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manatee

Check out our Youtube video of the trip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmCMCkwJ-o0

Tomorrow: Part 2, paddling the Rainbow River

 

Visited April 2014

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