From petting stingrays in Grand Cayman to riding elephants in Thailand, animal interactions sit high on the universal travel bucket list. On the Gulf Coast of Florida, just and hour and a half away from the tourism juggernaut that is Orlando (and yet another creature – a very famous little mouse!) lies another such animal encounter opportunity. The draw? The chance to swim with manatees on the Crystal River.
After spending my childhood admiring the fat little cows of the sea and even rousing my fifth grade class to virtually adopt one, I couldn’t wait to see a manatee up close. I was in luck, as my Christmas trip to Florida coincided with the best time to view the manatees – while I came to escape the freezing air of New York, they came to escape cooling waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Manatees are present in Crystal River year-round, but from December to March the question is not if but how many head to the warmer waters of the river. And tour-wise, if you can swing a weekday visit like I did, you will be met with far fewer crowds – of humans, that is.
The chance to swim with these animals is made even more poignant by their endangered status. Though Crystal River hosts one of the world’s largest populations of West Indian manatees, these animals are in trouble due to loss of habitat, climate change, and boat collisions. Many precautions are taken when swimming with the manatees to ensure that all parties – humans and manatees alike – are kept safe and happy.
A tad overexcited, I arrived at the Crystal River tour operator a bit early. My promptness was rewarded though, with a private dolphin show right off the dock. When the rest of the group arrived, we gathered in the shop to watch a video introducing us to the creatures we were about to get up close and personal with, mainly stressing the policy of “passive interaction.” Basically, we had to wait for the manatees to approach us, and keep cool when they did. It was Play Hard to Get 101.
Thoroughly briefed on manatee communication, we boarded the boat with Captain Jim for a scenic cruise out to the Crystal River Springs. Slowly, of course, in order to protect the gentle giants popping up periodically beside us. Soon we were docking up by the entrance to the springs we would swim back into. Zipping up my wetsuit and donning a mask and snorkel, I braced myself for the chilly waters. With water near a cool 72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, it’s highly recommended that you bring your own wetsuit or rent one for an additional $10. “Don’t worry, you’ll go numb!” Captain Jim called from the boat.
Swimming back into the springs, I soon came upon two massive gray rocks – wait, no – they were manatees! Diligently following orders, I waited patiently for the manatees to move. Soon they did, and I was rewarded with the curious glances of a baby manatee before the pair swam off in the opposite direction. Next, I followed a pack of my fellow tour-goers to a more active group of sea cows who approached us with curiosity and playfulness, even coming close so we could reach out and stroke them. Water leaked into my mask as I laughed at their funny football shaped bodies and the sloth-like way they carried themselves. And so it went for the next hour or so. Every time I thought I’d had enough and started to head back for the boat, I’d find another manatee to observe and photograph.
Finally back on the boat, the group exchanged stories and showed off photos, and generally buzzed over what a cool (literally!) experience we had just shared. This tour is the perfect way to explore Florida’s natural beauty, and get up close and personal with one of its most precious natural wonders. Take a day to slow down with one of nature’s slowest and most charming creatures before heading back to that famous mouse.
Photos courtesy of Alex Baackes.
– Alex Baackes