Florida is known for its crystal, turquoise blue. So why am I deliberately slipping into the mud with a snorkel? To go swimming with manatees, that’s why. To search for and understand those gentle marine giants who carry with them an eco success story all of their own.
It seems wrong to deliberately slip into muddy water right by houses, lawnmowers and someone revving their boat.
It seems even stranger to try to stay still.
But that’s the key to swimming with manatees in Florida’s Crystal River. To forget your idea of what should be going on, and to listen to nature herself.
For as domestic as the setting may be, this is the way to swim with manatees in the wild.
We’re not at an aquarium and this isn’t a salty marine circus. This is the ethically approved, environmentally sound way to swim with manatees.
And we’ve had a training session this morning to make sure we understand.
Don’t try to touch the manatees. Don’t shout. Don’t startle them. And don’t thrash around.
We’re not even allowed to stray from the boat until we can demonstrate to our captain that we can be trusted. That we can stay still.
And then, one by one, he leads us. Dragging us, floating us through the water, through the murk.
When we stay still, the water settles. The particles fall to the riverbed.
And from the blur, the slight sense of gloom, a magnificent mermaid’s tail appears.
Like a whale beneath the deep, it rises and falls. Then turns, walrus like, Churchill like, to face us and swim past.
It turns out the experts were right.
Stay very still. And the curious manatees will slowly come to you.
Fancy a life spent eating, sleeping and travelling in the sunshine of the Florida coast with no natural enemies?
No, that’s not the description of my latest travel-writing job, that's the lot of the gentle herbivorous manatee, and it’s a life that can last a hearty 60 or so years.
Not that the story’s always straightforward, though.
Human activities led to plummeting manatee numbers, earning them an uncoveted place on the very first list of Endangered Species introduced as an act of Congress in 1966.
Nature may be on the side of these swimming elephants that move so slowly but manmade inventions definitely aren’t. Boat collisions, net entanglements, fishing hooks, nets, lines and infection all took their toll.
Yet, their Ugly Duckling Mermaid status drew attention as long ago as the 18th century when the then-ruling Brits declared Florida a manatee sanctuary and made manatee hunting illegal.
Laws were updated several times as the political situation changed but even as late as 1907, it was possible to receive a fine of 500USD (a staggering amount at the time and not insignificant now) and six months of jail time for molesting or killing a manatee.
Yet by 1966, the manatee population was still critical enough to merit an entry into the inaugural Endangered Species act.
But this is a story with a happy ending. At least temporarily.
In the self-proclaimed Manatee Capital of the World in Crystal River, Florida, I hear encouraging news from river Captain John at the Crystal River Plantation.
“Our manatees here in America have been doing really well,” he tells me as we glide out on the early morning water.
“As recently as the late 90s, we were predicted to have maybe 400 or 500 manatees left here. Now we have 7000.”
So what’s been responsible for the change?
It would seem the focus moved from focusing on punishment when it came to manatee hunting to expending resources in researching the manatees themselves.
“They figured out that the manatees don’t hear very well, they don’t see very well. So what they need is to be able to feel their surroundings.”
It’s true, when you’re in the water, it’s clear that the hairs on the skin of the manatees detect vibration much like the inner ear. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Once they learned that,” the Captain continued, “they realised that if they just slow the boats down where manatees mate and meet then the population will actually recover."
And that’s what’s happened. From four or five hundred to seven thousand every year. It’s the kind of story I wish we heard more often.
November through to April are said to be the best months to see manatees in Florida.
You're likely to see the most activity in the morning.
Crystal River Plantation Adventure Center organise morning excursions to swim with manatees.
You can find their contact details and more information on their website (see link above).
How to Make it Happen
Swimming with manatees should definitely be part of your Florida itinerary. I've created a guide on everything you need to know to about visiting this state.
For car rental, we booked through Hertz. We love the service and the convenience of the pick up and drop off service at Orlando International. And the Hertz American Road Trip Planner makes organising an epic adventure almost as fun as the journey itself...almost.
The excursion lasts a few hours and includes an education session at the start. Crystal River Plantation Adventure Center provides wet suits, snorkels and masks and you can leave your gear at the shop.
As ever in America, tips are a big deal and more of less compulsory so bear this in mind and make sure you have spare cash.
Not really. Everyone in the water needs to stay still and move slowly and quietly – and that’s not compatible with children. We could take Baby lab on the boat with us, though, and after swimming with manatees, we visited a beautiful spot where everyone could swim.
So it’s still a lovely family activity overall but children need to be old enough to float and stay completely still in order for you all to see manatees.
Disclosure – My trip involved many partnerships, including Hertz UK and Visit Florida. I’m recommending this experience because it really is worth your time if and when you visit Florida!
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