On a recent cold (for Florida) morning, my 9-year-old nephew, sister and I drove 1.5 hours from my home in Tampa north to Crystal River. Our mission: to swim with the manatees. Just that week, an estimated 300 manatees were spotted in Crystal River’s natural springs. The reason for their migration into the springs was simple — they needed to warm up!
Like us, manatees can suffer from hypothermia if they are in cold water too long, and need to be in water at least 68 to 72 degrees to stay healthy. And so, when winter temperatures arrive in the south, manatees seek out warmer waters, and Florida’s springs provide just that, maintaining about 72 degrees year-round.
After checking in with the team at Plantation Adventure Center and Manatee Tours, my nephew and I donned our 3-millimeter wetsuits (my sister opted for the ride along instead of snorkeling) so we would keep warm in the 72-degree water, too; the air temp when we snorkeled that morning was about 45 degrees. Before boarding the pontoon boat, we watched an education video introducing snorkelers to manatees, as well as going over passive observation and what to do — and not to do — once we were in the water. My nephew, ever the rule follower, watched with rapt attention.
A quick boat ride from the dock and we were ready to swim with the manatees! As the captain carefully dropped anchor, a baby manatee approached the boat deck, seemingly welcoming us to her winter home. One by one our group of seven snorkelers, plus our guide, lowered ourselves down the ladder. Together, we swam to where the manatees were congregating, keeping aware of the rope floating atop the calm water that designated a no trespassing zone — only manatees were allowed to go beyond the rope; we humans were to stay back.
In no time, manatees surrounded my nephew and me. One and then another and then another swam by, as curious of us as we were of them. They came right up to our masks and snorkels, and brushed against our stomachs and hands (we were not allowed to touch them, but they could touch us) as they glided past.
Side-by-side my nephew and I quietly swam with these gentle giants, and became a part of their magical underwater world, if only for a little while.