My first encounter with a manatee was during a trip to SeaWorld, Florida when much younger. My family and I immediately fell in love with these giant gentle beasts of the rivers. I recall standing in a circular underground theatre in SeaWorld, watching a film narrated by a wee girl who had spotted a strange animal in the water. Her father explained it was a manatee and invited us all to walk through to doors at the back of the room to meet one for ourselves. There we entered an underground aquarium and behind a 20 foot high glass wall a manatee ‘hung’ in the water, flipper bent and its face scarred from a collision with a outboard motor. I immediately fell in love with the animal and was enraptured by its gentle gaze, its comforting presence and its vulnerability. I was rooted to the spot for an hour, refusing to be moved by tour groups, parents or officials. There and then, with tears in my eyes, I named it my most favourite animal and vouched never to forget it as it rotated slowly, round and round in the water, powered by the one working flipper it had. That’s when my manatee obsession started.
You can only imagine, therefore, how ecstatic I was when, 20 years or so later, I had the opportunity to swim with manatees in the wild for my 30th birthday. It was a dream come true and I struggled to keep my emotions in check both during the experience and in the build up to it.
We booked a swim with the manatees at Crystal River Florida, about 3.5 hours drive from Orlando, and set off happily at 3:30am for a 7am swim. We booked with a company called Birds Underwater and I would not hesitate in recommending them or using them again. They were friendly, ethical, patient and extremely good value. Unlike many other operators, they allowed you as much time with the manatees as you liked and were very strict about your contact with them. We spent over 3 hours in the water with the manatees, and during this time many tour groups fleetingly came and went, so there were times when it was just us and the manatees and that was bliss.
To get to the springs in Crystal River you hop aboard a board and travel 20 minutes or so down river. Once there, you are free to gently roll into the water off the side of the boat and commence your snorkel. At this time and location, the water was extremely murky and, despite being a very confident swimmer, I had a panic attack. The water was not deep, but I could not see a thing and I was not yet accustomed to the snorkeling equipment. My excitement and anxiety took over and I clung to my husband like a limpet, weeping, ashamed of myself and scared that I could not navigate the incredibly narrow channel to get from the river to the spring where the manatees were and that I would deny myself of this dream. Ali was great and very gentle, encouraging me to lift my head out of the water and stand still to get accustomed to the water and the movements within it. However, just as my confidence was creeping back I felt the earth beneath my feet literally move and I squealed. In the mindset of my panic I had, unawares, stood on a sleeping manatee’s back. Given my immense love for these animals the last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt them. I became so worried about this manatee that I had no choice but to put my head under and swim with it to make sure it was ok….it was, thank goodness.
Hand in hand, Ali and I snorkeled through the narrow channel. Little more than a couple of feet wide and deep in places, I was bumped all ways, left, right, top, bottom from passing manatees. I suppressed a delighted but scared giggle and pressed on. It was worth it! At the end of the channel were warm, deeper and clear spring waters. You could see manatees in every direction. At that time of the morning most were suspended face down in the water, sleeping, rising to the surface only to breathe on occasions. This gave us time to have a survey of the waters and see where family groups were before they started to wake. Ali and I chose a secluded spot together and waited. Our patience was duly rewarded.
Manatees are such gentle and curious creatures who love human contact. The longer we spent in the water with them the more interactions they requested and craved. It’s not unusual that, whilst tickling a manatee, they will roll over to allow you to scratch their belly, and many will even grab your hand tightly with their flippers and push your hands to the area they want scratched. Some even seem to get jealous of the contact you have with others – it wasn’t unusual to have two or three manatees jostling for your attention at once.
I’ll never forgot the first time the manatee grabbed my hand with its flipper. Its strength was significant, and I noticed little nails on the end of her flippers. Her skin was coarse and her tiny eyes examined me. I could not have let go even if I’d have wanted too.
As much as I enjoyed my interactions with the manatees, I also loved watching Ali interact with them. Sea going creatures seem to have an affinity with Ali – dolphins love him, sealions have flocked to him and now manatees craved him. As I videoed Ali and the manatee rolling round in the water, synchronising their movements, I saw another manatee watching from a distance. This manatee approached Ali slowly, pausing only to allow others to pass. Upon approaching Ali he decided to have a bit of a sniff around, and proceeded to take Ali’s arm between his flippers and snuffle Ali from his fingertips to his shoulder, and then to his face and eventually his facemask. Half way between crying with joy and laughing, I took in a mouth of water and had to break the surface to calm myself. I dipped below the surface once more to find Ali with a huge bristly manatee mouth around the edge of his face. I could tell that beneath his snorkel he was smiling. It was a moment we will cherish forever.
More pictures of manatees are available in our online gallery.