Meet the Manatees

Coming Face-to-Face with Florida’s Endangered Manatees Makes for an Magical Experience Disney World Can’t Touch

The early morning mist hangs just above the placid surface of Kings Bay as the first rays of the winter sun reveal the telltale “footprint” ripples that mark the presence of a group of endangered West Indian manatees.

As I slip on my mask, snorkel, and swim fins and lower myself quietly into the warm water, I can feel my heart beating faster inside my wetsuit. I follow my guide towards a half-dozen manatees lounging just outside the clearly marked boundaries of one of several sanctuary areas designed to allow them to escape all contact with humans.

And then, as I approach, a strange and wonderful thing happens. Instead of turning tail and swimming away, a mother and her calf actually move slowly towards me as if they’re as curious about me as I am about them.
Each winter hundreds of these gentle giants congregate here in the swimming pool-clear waters of the 46-acre Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge off Florida’s west coast to seek shelter from cold winter nights in the warm and protected waters of the area’s 30 natural springs. Those plentiful numbers, along with a little help from local outfitter Bird’s Underwater, helped set the stage for one of the most profoundly moving wildlife encounters I’ve ever experienced.

Our early-morning tour began with a short video that covers the do’s-and-don’ts of swimming alongside this protected species. But despite the strict rules governing snorkelers’ interactions with the manatees, this is definitely a hands-on experience. In fact, in many cases, the manatees actually seem to encourage their visitors’ touch as they use their front flippers to move an extended hand to an area of their rough, rubbery bodies they’d apparently like to have rubbed.

That eagerness to interact means we got plenty of up-close-and-personal time out of our three-hour tour. Our captain dropped our pontoon boat’s anchor at two different locations, including just outside a long dark stream that opened onto a hidden sunlit spring so startlingly clear it was like being inside the manatee exhibit at SeaWorld. Ultimately, I found the experience to be so enthralling that I swam back to the boat feeling my time exploring these whiskered mammals’ watery world was over much too soon.

Despite being listed as an endangered species, manatees still face a frustratingly uncertain future filled with multiple threats to their survival ranging from boat propellers to habitat destruction. After meeting a manatee face-to-face, however, I’m convinced that if more people could have this experience, the need to protect these gentle creatures and their strikingly beautiful home simply wouldn’t be an issue.

Xtrordinary Xtra
Some say these 10-foot long, 1,200-pound mammals with the whiskered muzzles are the basis for the legends of beautiful mermaids told by ancient mariners. Which can’t help but make you wonder what those old-time sailors had been drinking.

Xtrordinary Xtra
Kings Bay, which is only about 2.5 miles in diameter, is home to the largest concentration of manatees in the world.

The Facts
Name: Bird’s Underwater Manatee Tours
Location: Crystal River, FL; about 75 miles north of St. Petersburg and two hours northwest of Orlando.
Phone: (800) 771-2763; (352) 563-2763
Website: www.birdsunderwater.com

My Advice

  • Bird’s Underwater offers manatee swims on King’s Bay seven days a week year-round. That said, the high season runs from October through March when large numbers of manatees congregate in the area’s many warm-water springs.
  • Your chances of coming face-to-face with a sea cow are much greater if you drag yourself out of bed in time for the earlier of the company’s two daily departures. Midweek outings are also generally more enjoyable as there are fewer other boats on the water.
  • You can rent a wetsuit, mask, snorkel, and swim fins or you can feel free to bring your own. You’ll also need to bring your own towels (a lesson I learned the hard way). Hot drinks, juice, water, and donuts are provided on the boat.
  • Even though this is Florida, wintertime air temperatures can be quite nippy in the early morning, making a warm jacket or heavy sweatshirt a necessity.
  • If you’ve never used a mask and snorkel before, you’ll likely feel more relaxed in the water if you can borrow a friend’s snorkeling gear and try it out in your local swimming pool before you come.
  • Go ahead and spring for the excellent digital-quality video so you can relive this extraordinary experience all over again in the comfort of your own living room.