Crystal River, FL - Your first encounter with a manatee is one that you will never forget; in fact, any encounter with a creature this large and this gentle is awe-inspiring to say the least.
Crystal River, about an hour north of Tampa Bay, is an unspoiled playground for man and beast. Most noteworthy, Crystal River is home to the largest herd of endangered manatees in the US, congregating primarily in the beautiful Crystal and Homosassa Rivers. They can be seen from the riverbanks or by engaging local guide services for a boat, or up-close snorkel or diving encounter.
We began our trek to find the elusive manatee after a 14-hour chartered bus ride from The Dive Shop in Richmond, VA, and then by renting our own pontoon boats and heading up the Crystal River on a self-guided tour. The run to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge takes about 20 minutes, primarily because the entire area is a "no wake" zone which is designed to slow boaters and protect the resident gentle giants known as manatees.
Thought to be gentle because it had never had a predator, the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) met up with one in the 1500s when Spanish colonists hunted and killed the large sea mammals for their meat, leather, and oil. Low population levels led Florida to ban manatee hunting in 1893, but recovery of the species was limited by shrunken populations and the subsequent losses of habitat. That led to manatees being listed as an endangered species. Sanctuaries, public education, and strict enforcement of low motorboat speeds are now the principal conservation measures being used to help build a sustainable population.
"I was chatting on the surface with my dive buddy and right there between us, just below the surface, appeared a large sea cow with a baby in tow!"
When we finally arrived at the Crystal River NWR, which consists of nine small islands totaling little more than 40 acres, we were all bubbling with anticipation but were initially dismayed at the number of other boats already on the site. We counted no less than 20 other watercraft ranging in size from 14 ft. johnboats up to full sized charter boats anchored adjacent to the refuge, all vying for a glimpse of the manatees. The area is popular with divers and snorkelers because of the fresh water springs that produce 600 million gallons daily at a consistent 72 degrees F year round. The warm water is what attracts the large seal-like manatees during cooler weather when temperatures in open water drop. Being a tropical animal, manatees cannot survive long periods in water temperatures below 68¡F. By late December, over 100 of these giant "sea cows" will have congregated around the springs in Kings Bay. The refuge is critical habitat for 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. manatee population.
Our initial fears that overcrowding might scare off the manatees were quickly put aside when we entered the water. The visibility was less than 20 feet and it was readily apparent that the overwhelming majority of the snorkelers and divers in the water had no clue as to where the manatees actually were. This, as it turns out, was a good thing. No one rushed the manatees and they were not chased or harassed in any way, basically because not many folks actually saw them...at first. They move very slowly and kind of sneak up on you.
I had originally planned to shoot some underwater video but after the first 10 minutes of filming only fish and other divers my batteries died. Naturally, seconds later I had my first up close and personal manatee encounter Ð I was chatting on the surface with my dive buddy and right there between us, just below the surface, appeared a large sea cow with a baby in tow! It was stunning. I was so moved by their graceful presence that I almost spit out my snorkel. I was somehow mystically drawn to reach out and touch them, but I couldn't, I was speechless. The odd thing was that divers five feet to our left and right never saw them.
For the next 20 minutes we encountered a total of five different manatees within a 50 yard radius of where we saw the first two. They were all actually hanging out just outside of the refuge in and among the boats and divers. We had an amazing photo opportunity with one youngster who seemed to relish the attention. He was chewing on a line dangling in the water from one of the boats. He was fixated on the rope and didn't seem to want to give it up. This gave us ample opportunity to take some close up photos. We left him with other snorkelers as we made our way back to our own boat with what I hoped would turn out to be some amazing shots. As we left we noticed one of the volunteer "park rangers" slip over in a kayak and break up the crowd that had corralled the young manatee and let him go on his way.
If you are planning to dive with manatees, remember to respect them and not "love" them too much. Any of the following forms of interaction may be considered harassment under the Endangered Species Act (ESA):
»feeding manatees or giving them water
»any actions that might separate a mother and calf
Manatees are an endangered species protected under the federal Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. Conviction on the federal level is punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 and/or one year in prison. Anyone convicted of violating the state law faces a possible maximum fine of $500 and/or imprisonment for up to 60 days. The State of Florida can also pursue prosecution under federal law. Even more important than breaking the law is that human interactions with manatees can cause harm. Manatees can be observed without violating the provisions of these laws.
Later that day we saw a couple more manatees near Three Sisters Spring; and eventually everyone on our boat had the opportunity to swim with them. Without question, everyone in the group agreed it was a dive of a lifetime. One young lady in our group summed up the experience best when she said, "I didn't see any last year when we came down, and was badly disappointed. But today just made up for that, and them some."
Editor's Note: Wes Gruver is a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer with more than 18 years diving and training experience living in Richmond, VA. He has dived every ocean on the earth except the Arctic; however its on his list.
He can be reached at email@example.com. Check out his site at www.veterandivers.com.