Up Close with Florida’s Gentle Giants

Expert View Column , Nature
Up Close with Florida’s Gentle Giants
By ATD’s Florida Experts, Susan and Simon Veness
When you think of Florida wildlife, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the alligator. The second thing that should come to mind is an iconic marine mammal found in the warm waters in and around the Sunshine State: the manatee. And there is nothing quite like getting face-to-face with these gentle giants.

We recently spent two days at The Plantation on Crystal River, a lovely period resort right on the river, as our base to enjoy two very special encounters with “sea cows”, first through a guided ‘swim with the manatees’ tour, and then at Homosassa State Wildlife Park. Join us on an extraordinary adventure you’ll find only in Florida.

 

Manatee Homosassa State Wildlife Park

 

But first, a little insight into manatees. There are three species around the world, and the species found in and around the Crystal River are the West Indian Manatee. They are herbivores with no front teeth, but have molars near the back of their mouths (so, no, they can’t bite you). They make a soft but sharp squeaking sound, and they breathe air, so they have to surface relatively often. Babies weigh 60-70lbs (4-5st) at birth, they live up to 40 years in the wild, grow up to 1,200lbs (86st), and reach 8-13 feet in length.

What can you expect from a typical tour? It starts with instructions and a wetsuit. Wetsuits, snorkels and masks are provided by the tour operator, and we began our tour by struggling into our wetsuits, with our swimming costumes on underneath. There is no graceful way to put these things on, so we just pulled and tugged and laughed our way through it. We strongly encourage photographic evidence.

 

Florida Manatee Tour

 

We were then shown a video about how to interact safely during our swim. Because manatees are an endangered species (though they rebounded well after the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and may be down-listed to Threatened), there are several rules around encounters with them. For our own safety, we were instructed to float rather than swim (no kicking, no splashing, no big arm movements that might scare the manatee), and for the animals’ safety we were instructed to “observe passively” (never initiate contact; never sit on, ride on, or stand on an animal; and never awaken or harass an animal; in short, leave them alone and simply observe).

With that in mind, our group boarded a pontoon-style boat and headed to the area where our swim would take place. The location (and the water clarity) can vary, depending on where the animals are congregating. Outside of areas with the clearest water, morning swims offer the best clarity, but even when things get stirred up, visibility is still sufficient to fully enjoy your encounters.

 

Florida Manatee Tour

 

Once we arrived, our guide sprayed de-fogger into our masks and we climbed down the boat ladder into the water, where we practised floating for a few minutes before moving further away. There were foam swim noodles available for those who felt more comfortable using one, but the wetsuits provided ample buoyancy (and surprising warmth!) on their own. At no time did we feel chilly or insecure, and our attention was completely riveted on the encounters.

Within moments we spotted manatees. Because our swim took place during Florida’s cooler months (January-March), the manatees were in the shallow waters in abundance. While there are always manatees in Crystal River, the number varies greatly depending on season.

 

Manatee in Florida

 

Our guides in the water and on the boat both helped us locate the animals as we floated, and our group experienced encounters with well over a dozen animals. Some met us at the surface, some swam below, some hung out near our boat, and some literally came face-to-face with swimmers or gave them a gentle, curious nudge.

Remember the rules we mentioned earlier? There is one happy exception: while manatees enjoy extensive legal protections, it is permissible to gently touch them with one open hand if they initiate contact. And you can take all the pictures or video you like.

 

Swimming with Manatees Florida

 

Our group had several encounters during which manatees initiated contact, including one adorable youngster who rolled over for a belly rub, and one curious adult who gave Simon pats on the back—and then gently held his leg and was reluctant to let go!

 

Swimming with manatees in Florida

 

Susan spent half an hour taking photographs before going in for a swim, and throughout that time manatees frequently came right up to the boat. One woman in our group was not comfortable in the water and remained on the boat, but she enjoyed it as much as her family members who did the swim.

Being so close to these gentle mammals was breathtaking, and it was well worth the early start to see them while they were active and curious. There is no question we’ll jump at the chance to do it all again, and we feel it’s a unique opportunity that should not be missed.

 

Florida manatee swim

 

After we showered and changed into dry clothes, we moved on to Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, not far from Crystal River, for some ‘passive observation’ on land. Our tour there began with a boat ride along pretty Pepper Creek, from the visitor centre to the park itself, where a boardwalk took us past enclosures featuring wildlife native to Florida (with one notable exception: Lu, the 57-year-old rescued hippo, who was named an honorary citizen by the governor!).

 

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

 

We saw manatees, Florida panthers, dozens of birds of prey, a black bear, two comical river otters, red wolves, foxes, bobcats, reptiles, deer, and, of course, gators. All of the residents of the park are rescue animals deemed unable to be released, and have been given a home in natural surroundings.

 

Crystal River

 

There are Wildlife Encounters, paved trails, underwater viewing of the spring and its fish, restrooms, concessions and a restaurant, a gift shop, and loads of opportunities to spot wildlife. The park is fully accessible, and it is open year round from 9am-5.30pm. Entry fee is $13 ages 13 and up, $5 ages 6-12, with ages 5 and under free.

Even better, you can book ATD’s excellent Florida Adventure Tour--Swim with Manatees and get the swim and a visit to Homosassa without any of the hassle or the driving.

Then, join us on Attraction Tickets Direct's discussion forums and show us the photos from your tour! 

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Expert View Column , Nature

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