We visited Crystal River in Florida, which is a gorgeous spot along the gulf coast with shallow, warm, blue-green water. The West Indian Manatee likes it too and hundreds of them come to this spot to spend their winters in the warm springs.
We went on a tour to snorkel with the manatees. What an amazing experience! The average manatee is about 10 feet long and over 1,000 pounds, their closest living relative being an elephant. Gentle and friendly giants, they move slowly and gracefully for such a large animal. They seem to love their environment doing rolls, somersaults and swimming upside down like they are in some sort of underwater ballet.
At first it is a little unnerving being in the water wish such large animals, but they are so calm that their nature inhabits you and soon you feel just as calm swimming with them.
The only problem? All the tourists! When our tour boat got on location early in the morning, there were already six other boats there, more on the other side, and more on the way, each carrying 10-20 passengers. That is a lot of people to pile into the small area where the manatees huddle together at night. The animals have a safe zone where people are not allowed to go in order to give them some peace.
There were so many people it leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth. Ray and I were not willing to swim up to the place where all the manatees sleep and all the tourists pile around them. It just seems wrong that they are harassed like that.
We decided to hang back by the tourist boat and we were rewarded for not crowding them and letting the manatees come to us. I had a baby manatee come to me. It came right up to my mask, I was trying to back up because I was just a little afraid, but it just came right up and looked me right in the eye. Then it swam along beside me and rolled over to have his belly scratched. He would swim away, do a little ballet for me, and come back to swim along side me. It was a real wildlife encounter I will never forget. I really think that manatee liked me!
Eventually he left and I went to find Ray who was standing in the shallow water with a manatee nibbling on his wetsuit!
Here is a photo that the tour operator took of Ray and I in the water with Ray’s manatee friend.
On one hand Ray and I had an amazing experience letting the manatees come to us on their own terms. But I still felt bad that there were so many tourists surrounding them every day.
In Crystal River they are trying hard to preserve the area the manatees go for the winter, and I know that the tourism helps the conservation efforts by raising awareness of the animals.
It reminds me a bit of home where 20 tour boats will surround the Orcas and follow them around all day every day. It is a much more pleasant experience if you manage to come across the whales on your own and I have often left the scene when all the tour boats show up because it makes me feel like the whales are being harassed. But the tourism is necessary to raise awareness of the animals and help preserve their environment. Otherwise no one would be concerned about polluting the ocean.
I guess I have to be happy that at least the animals are not being captured in order to raise awareness about them in some far off land. It is the least of all evils and does have some positive benefit for all.
I don’t have any of my own images of the manatees since I don’t have underwater housing for my camera and our little waterproof point and shoot died only a couple of weeks before we got to Crystal River. If you want to see some beautiful images of the manatees, please visit my friend Jon Cornforth’s blog. He was there during our visit and it was great to be able to meet Jon (who I only knew from social media) and enjoy a fun evening of dinner and conversation.
Crystal River was a lot of fun all around. We went snorkelling, kayaking, bike riding on a few different trails, visited the nearby Homosassa Wildlife Park, and went to the Manatee Festival to enjoy some food, music and local crafts.