Swimming with Manatees - Crystal River, FL
After swimming at the Homosassa River for two days, we were scheduled to move about 15 minutes away to the Crystal River where manatees often wintered-over. There we met up with Bill and Diana Oestreich of Bird's Underwater who were going to be out guides for the next couple of days.
It was easy to see, right from the beginning, that Bill ("Bird") and Diana had a special place in their hearts for the manatee - and that they were truly experts in manatee encounters - as well as advanced SCUBA instructors.
Bill piloted us to several springs on Crystal River, giving us pointers on how to interact with the manatees. These tips included minimizing splashing and bubble noise, slow movements, waiting for the animal to initiate the contact, and made sure we were clear on all regulations and laws associated with the protection of the manatee.
We found a friendly manatee at one popular sanctuary area, back in one of the canals around Crystal River. It was thrilling to see the light grey animal swim up to the boat and start "flossing" on a frayed rope left hanging over the side of the boat.
Things changed, however, when another boat entered the area, and the manatee decided he didn't want to stick around any longer, leaving us to return to his protected sanctuary area.
The rest of the day finding manatees proved challenging as almost all of them had left during the warmer-than-normal weather to feed in deeper water. We witnessed several other tour operators in the area, and it seemed like any manatee that was spotted in open water would quickly be descended upon. We also witnessed several people chasing manatees and disturbing resting manatees intentionally.
Because of the documentary being filmed, we had an official from US Fish and Wildlife onboard our boat that day, and he quickly dealt with those few people who were harassing the animals. Unfortunately, they have to do this on a regular basis - which is why there is a strong effort to educate people about proper manatee-manners by the people who want to help protect them.
Because of the moderate number of people in the water, and the low number of manatees available, I decided to sit-out a few swims as I thought the encounter would not be all that enjoyable for myself or the manatee. Those few who swam out from our boat reported happy and engaging encounters with young manatees who wanted to play.
Crystal River features several Manatee Sanctuary areas which give the manatees a place to retreat from the boats and people when they want to rest or feed. You cannot enter these sanctuary areas under any circumstance. The newest sanctuary is at Three Sisters Springs. It was established in November 1997. Access to the three springs for swimmers is still provided and I recommend you snorkel back to the springs and enjoy the "lagoon-like" atmosphere.
Another great spot is the Main Spring - a cavernous opening to about 50 foot deep - for experienced SCUBA divers only. It is a rewarding dive, as the cavern has crystal clear spring water continuously flowing into it, quickly removing any sediment which may be kicked up. Take your lights, as the back of the cavern is dark - but don't forget to turn around and check-out the beautiful blue-green column of light penetrating through the opening.
Call the Wildlife Alert Hotline 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or *FWC/#FWC, or use VHF Channel 16 on your marine radio if you see an injured, dead, tagged, or orphaned manatee, or if you see a manatee being harassed.
Manatee News Blog