I’m kind of thinking it’s time for a new post category on Alex in Wanderland — perhaps “Animals I Squealed At?” Maybe, “Fauna That Made Me Talk In A Baby Voice?” Or more descriptively, “Creatures That I Briefly Considered Smuggling in My Backpack?
It’s true — I’m obsessed with animals. And lately, there have been a fair amount of posts about my pursuit of getting closer to them. I’ve swum with manta rays in Hawaii, fed an elephant in Cambodia, rode a horse in Iceland, played with stingrays in Grand Cayman, hung out with tigers and monkeys in Thailand, fetishized Highland Cows in Scotland, volunteered at animal shelters in Thailand and Grand Cayman, and visited zoos and aquariums in cities around the world. I also make a habit of befriending stray dogs on every corner of the planet but it’s all good — I’ve got the full range of crazy-animal-lady vaccines!
Recently, my pursuit of getting all up in some animal business brought me to Crystal River, Florida. They share my enthusiasm level.
Crystal River is manatee mad. Signs for manatee swims line the highway while everything from hotels to mailboxes make a nod to the city’s claim to fame. My personal manatee history in pretty well-entrenched too. When I was in the fifth grade, I was manatee obsessed. I decorated an old washed-out peanut butter jar with a collage of manatee images that I printed out from Ask Jeeves, and brought it to my classroom where my teacher allowed me to solicit my classmates for donations. Eventually we had enough to adopt a new class pet — a manatee named Star!
Sadly, Star passed away — and the news was passed on via an official sounding letter in an envelope marked “SENSITIVE MATERIAL WITHIN” and delivered to me with total gravity after class by my teacher Mr. Feldman. First of all, I admire Adopt-A-Manatee‘s commitment to authenticity — I mean, it would have been pretty easy to not tell a bunch of fifth grader’s that their freshly virtually adopted pet was dead, am I right? But really, who doesn’t need another reason for therapy.
Years later, I was ready to face the manatees again — this time on their turf. So I borrowed my aunt’s car and signed up for the Self-Drive Swim with Manatees on the Crystal River. While spotting wild animals can never be guaranteed, my chances were good as I was visiting during the peak season of December to March, when manatees flock to Florida to escape the cool winters in the Gulf of Mexico — kind of puts manatees in the same category as most Florida retirees, no?
I arrived early at the dock and was rewarded for my promptness by a dolphin splashing around in the harbor. When the rest of the tour-goers arrived from Orlando, we gathered in the shop to watch a video on how to interact with the manatees. It was a lot like an instructional dating video from the 1950’s — play hard to get, don’t make aggressive eye contact, don’t go to them, let them come to you.
Of course, these strict regulations are only for the animal’s benefit. Crystal River may be home to one of the world’s largest populations of West Indian manatees, but sadly they are still endangered animals. They suffer from loss of habitat, climate change, and boat collisions — the final cause of death of my poor Star so many moons ago.
Soon we were on the boat, scanning the water for large gray shadows. The captain spotted a few, but promised us a real show once we arrived at the Crystal River Springs. Mask, snorkel and wetsuit donned, I hesitated before hopping into the chilly 72 degrees Fahrenheit water — though the captain cheerily assured me that I’d go numb soon enough.
I swam back into the springs a little apprehensively — I knew the manatees wouldn’t hurt me, but it’s still a bit strange swimming alone through a mangrove looking for a wild animal. But as time passed and no manatees, I grew a bit disheartened — when suddenly I spotted two gray rocks.
But they weren’t rocks! It was a momma and a baby manatee. I played by the rules, observing them stealthily and from a distance. These two weren’t interested in me and eventually swam away, but I was floating, literally and metaphorically.
I spent the next hour zipping around the springs from one manatee to another. Some glided by slowly and gracefully with not more than a passing glance.
Some were curious and playful, and others came right up to nuzzle with the snorkelers floating nearby.
I tried to hand my camera to a few people but the results were disastrous (um, yes, I was in fact interested in a photo of me and a manatee — not your fins), so I had to settle for some underwater selfies.
My mask leaked with water and my whole body shook with laughter at times, just watching these awkward-shaped sea cows move through the water like they were in slow motion.
I kept telling myself it was time to go back to the boat — then I’d see just one more manatee I had to film or photograph. Eventually, finger numbness forced me back to the boat.
This was a truly magical experience. There is nothing quite like getting to interact with wild animals in their own environment. They could swim away or leave any time, which means that when you are together, they are making the willful choice to spend time with you. What could be more special than that? In all my years of coming to Florida, this was the most special activity I have done, and I can’t recommend it more.
And while photos are great, there’s nothing like video to really show the character of these funny creatures. This one’s for you, Star!
Tour Tips: When signing on for the Self-Drive Swim with Manatees on the Crystal River, try to book for a week day if possible — it will be much less crowded. Also, bring along either a wetsuit or the $10 to rent one. It may be listed as “optional,” but believe me — you don’t want to spend an hour in that water without one at any time of the year. And while the tour tells you to arrive at 10:20, the group from Orlando doesn’t get there until 11:00am, so don’t sweat if you’re running late!
Have you ever swam with manatees? What’s been your coolest animal interaction? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
I am a freelancer for Viator and participated in this tour in order to write a review for their site. They did not request a favorable view on either their site or my own. All thoughts and opinions are, as always, mine.