Mermaid + Hippo

Today we had the most incredible experience – we swam with manatees!

Such a cool creature! If you asked me to describe it I might say you would have to picture what would happen if a Mermaid and a hippopotamus had a baby. It would be something close to a manatee. They are essentially an underwater version of a cow – massive, slow moving, cute, curious, omnivores.

Although it was not exactly the warmest weather today we jumped into some wetsuits and snorkelling gear and braved the 72 degree (or less) water with a local tour operator. I can tell you it was well worth it.

Up close, these guys are impressive – weighing around 1500lbs. Adults are easily greater than 6 feet long, as demonstrated here by the official Andrew ruler (end to end Andrews arms span just over 6 feet).

We got to float near the sleeping giants, watching them come up for air every once in a while. I believe they can hold their breath for about 20 minutes.

With a guide we learned that the manatees have recently become a really well protected mammal in Florida. This is good news, as there have been declines in the population over recent years.  Legislation has come in place to allow for some strict enforcement of rules that underpin human-manatee interactions. This means, we have a the privilege of being able to swim with wild manatees, as long as we observe certain key rules. For example:

You are not allowed to bother them when they’re sleeping.

You cannot come between a mom and a baby.

And you can’t chase them, otherwise harass, or harm them in any way.

In the Crystal River Springs area, there are even some areas roped off for just the manatees where no people or boats are allowed. In addition, boating in shallow and designated areas around Crystal river and other parts of the Florida coast also now requires boaters to slow down.  This is important since manatees tend to stay close to the surface causing them to be easily injured or killed if a boat hits them. In fact, several animals we saw had long scars which where likely from boat hulls or propellers. When we were snorkelling, we got told to move away from an area so that manatee rescue staff could remove a tangled fishing line from a young animal’s fin.  It was frustrating to see because these things are preventable. Hopefully with more awareness, these types of things can be avoided in the future.

When swimming with them you quickly find out that all you needed to do is just float and watch them – it is also the best thing, because attempting to force any interaction would just be stressful and unfair.

They are naturally curious, so if they want to interact with you, they will come to you.

I think learning these things was so important. When you’re lucky enough to find a passionate tour operator who is concerned about the manatees safety and welfare, they tend want to share as much information as they can with you. If we had tried to just do it ourselves, as we originally considered doing, we might have put unnecessary stress on these animals by breaking the rules we wouldn’t even know existed.

The company we went with does small things that make all the difference to the experience. For example, they only takes small groups of 6 or less out on tours and they are not rushing to get back. They are willing to leave when you feel like you’ve had the type of experience you want. To help ensure you don’t disturb the manatees or the silt on the bottom, they don’t give you flippers, and you get a ‘pool noodle’ flotation thingy so you stay off the ground and maintain good visibility.

For anyone wanting to try something new, a tour is always a good way to become aware of all the things you may not have considered, or even to show you all the “good spots” or “tricks of the trade” that experienced tour operators have discovered over a number of years. When choosing a tour – it has been our experience to keep things small and simple. This way you usually get way more out of the tour and your guide knows you as a person and not as a dollar sign or a number. We saw a larger set of tours show up and it’s unfortunate because not only are there just too many people, but it becomes difficult to make sure the manatees are not getting harassed. It becomes hard to even see in the water because too many people have disturbed the ground.

When the water is clear though, it’s just spectacular.

And of course we had a bit of fun with underwater photography. We’re trying out a GoPro from a friend and it has done brilliantly, both in and out of the water.

By the end of the day we were cold and exhausted, but completely content.

The manatee visit was the last on our list our here so after grabbing some dinner we hopped in the van for a the 2 hour drive to Orlando, FL.

Crystal River to Orlando, FL

Today’s track – 150 kms | 90 miles
Tomorrow’s plan – a visit to the laundromat