Snorkeling with Wild Manatees



I’ll admit it. When my alarm went off at 3:45 in the morning on a holiday weekend, my first thought was this better be worth it.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE manatees. Who doesn’t melt at their adorable square snouts and droopy lips?

But in the middle of the night? In forty-degree weather? For the earliest available tour time? Yes, I momentarily considered sliding back beneath the covers and hitting snooze. But… am I glad I didn’t.

A colleague and myself drove for two hours and, at around 6:30 AM, arrived at the American Pro Diving Center in Crystal River, Florida, a company that received the National Geographic Dive Center Award from PADI and National Geographic.

While on-site, we watched an educational video, learned about manatee protection laws, changed into wetsuits and gathered up our rental gear. And like the rest of the tour participants, we puchased disposable underwater cameras to put those puppies to the test. (Um, you be the judge).

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Manatees are placid creatures that require warm salt, fresh or brackish waters for survival. Should water temperatures fall below 68 degrees, manatees are vulnerable to hypothermia. Just last winter, I toured Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo critical care manatee hospital and witnessed first-hand how cold stress can affect these gentle giants.

During the winter months, many manatees migrate to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to enjoy pleasant year-round water temperatures. While this area offers a prime, concentrated manatee-watching area, laws are in place to ensure the safety of this endangered species. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, “it is unlawful for any person, at any time, by any means, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass, or disturb any manatee.” Dive Captain Atkinson emphasized that while swimming alongside the manatees is a permitted activity, it’s forbidden to disrupt their natural behavior.

With Quinn Atkinson as our dive master, we carried our flippers, goggles, snorkels and underwater cameras onto a flat-bottomed pontoon boat, anxious to get closer to the Florida’s manatees…

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Sunrise peaked as we cruised toward Jurassic Springs in unforgiving forty-degree weather, and Atkinson answered our eager questions. He shared that there are about 100 manatees in this area year-round. But during the winter months, this population grows to about 500 individuals. We passed a few lone manatees during our journey…

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When we finally arrived at the snorkeling spot, wetsuit-clad Atkinson took the lead and slipped gently into the water. We followed at our own pace, the warm water a refreshing bath compared to the chilly air temperatures. Dipping my face below the surface, stirred sediment floated passed my goggles. I inhaled a deep, rubber-tasting breath of oxygen from my snorkel, paddling with my hands to shift closer to to the banks…

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And then, quite suddenly, a sunlight-streaked grey face appeared in front of me – perhaps by curiosity, perhaps by chance. She was long and heavy-bodied, moving slowly and seemingly without purpose. Manatees have a size, shape and behavior that’s earned them an appropriate secondary name: sea cow. They can reach 13 feet in length and weigh up to 1,300 pounds.

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The manatee rotated a front flipper, adjusting course to lift her nose to the glassy spring surface. Her valve-like nostrils opened, drawing in the fresh air, and she submerged again. Then another manatee appeared but was gone within moments, the paddle-shaped tail fanning up and down as it disappeared from view…

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For a few more minutes, I swam in a circle, awaiting another sighting. Faint squeaks echoed throughout the water, and then I spotted them –  a mother and her adorable barnacle-covered calf.

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Wild manatees have an average lifespan of 40 years, and it was impossible for me to guess the mother’s age. Popping my head above water, nearby Atkinson estimated her baby to be six months old. Manatee females give birth to one baby (twins are rare) every two to five years, nursing the dependant calves for another year or two.

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The mother manatee grazed on water grasses as I floated nearby, my arms tucked into my body to avoid contact. Manatees are herbivores, devouring up to a tenth of their weight in just one full day.

I held my breath while the mother’s massive body spun like a sluggish, horizontal tornado. It was easy to draw a comparison to her closest living land relative – the elephant – by admiring her thick, grayish-hued skin.

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Back on the boat an hour later, we rid ourselves of the now-heavy, dripping wetsuits, teeth chattering as Atkinson handed us steaming Styrofoam cups. While sipping hot chocolate, my colleague and I reflected on our time in the water.

I felt an overwhelming appreciation for manatees after swimming alongside them. By observing their behaviors in a natural habitat and experiencing an undeniable, mutual trust, my emotional connection to their existence had magnified.

The Florida manatee (latirostris) is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) and is currently listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List. It’s believed that there are less than 2,500 mature individuals left in the wild, and “the population is estimated to decline by at least 20% over the next two generations due to anticipated future changes in warm-water habitat and threats from increasing watercraft traffic.”

How can you help save the manatee? Follow all boating signs and keep alert for marine life while participating in water activities. Never toss litter into the water. Contact policy makers and express your thoughts about manatee protection laws. Don’t feed manatees. Participate in “passive observation.” Get more ideas at Save the Manatee and learn more about the manatee species.

Want to GET CLOSER to more animals? Check out my other wildlife expedition blog posts! Go on a nighttime river safari, track wild elephants in Borneo, study an aggregation of migrating whale sharks, trek through the rainforest in search of orangutans, tour a giant, cockroach-infested cave, swim in an aquarium with seven shark species, and photograph manta rays from a tiny research plane!