Updated: Mar 19, 2019
350+ manatees in the Kings Bay area!? I couldn’t believe my eyes. As I boarded my flight down to an unseasonably cold Florida, I thought someone had accidentally added a zero to the manatee report. However, the following morning as I donned my wetsuit and dipped into the constant ~72 degree water of the Crystal River, I quickly realized they were right. Within seconds I was face to face with one of the most incredible and fascinating animals on the planet: a manatee...
Being able to observe and swim with large numbers of manatees hasn’t always been the case. In the not so distant past, the Florida Manatee was listed on the endangered species list and its future was uncertain at best. Florida Manatees have been listed as endangered ever since the official list was published in 1967. But in 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed their classification to "threatened," a lower status, despite the objections of scientists who reviewed the agency proposal. Nearly 87,000 comments and petition signatures opposing the change were submitted during the 90-day public comment process. Only 72 people said they were in favor of reclassifying manatees as threatened. Off the endangered species list, the manatees lost some of the protections that helped the population rebound to an estimated 6,300 Florida Manatees compared with only 1,230 in 1991.
As I slowly began to swim and explore the area, I couldn’t go 10 seconds without a manatee coming up to inspect the foreign creature that had ventured into its world. The normally clear waters of the Crystal River near Three Sisters Springs were unusually murky do to the sheer number of manatees swimming and stirring up sediment. As I started to venture out towards the main spring, a manatee the size of a Volkswagen Beetle appeared directly in front of me. He slowly approached until he sat motionless only a few inches in front of my face. My heart stopped and we both started at each other, seemingly wondering, "what the hell" we were both looking at. After what felt like an eternity, the big guy determined I wasn’t a threat and began to nuzzle up against my shoulder. He showed a lot of curiosity towards my camera housing and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the gentle back scratch I was giving him. I didn't think things could possibly get better until he decided a belly rub would be a better option. In a surprisingly agile move, the manatee spun around on his back and insisted that I rub his pale belly. His skin felt like a rough blubbery mix of leather and sand paper. I couldn’t believe it, I was in heaven.
After a few hours of similar encounters, I decided to seek out some of the other springs in the area, hoping for better water clarity. About a mile kayak paddle later, I came to my second set of springs within Kings Bay. There was already a manatee tour boat at the springs with swimmers in the water - usually a sure sign that there are manatees below. I quickly put my snorkel gear back on and headed down to inspect. To my enjoyment, the clarity was much improved and it didn’t take long for me to find 9 sleeping manatees at the bottom of the spring. There are specific rules you need to follow when observing the manatees and one of them is to never approach manatees, especially those who are sleeping or eating. Not wanting to disturb them from their beauty sleep, I started exploring the area around the spring. It didn’t take long for me to run into a baby manatee, not more than a year old, who was swimming elegantly with its mother. The baby was extremely curious and instantly came over to check out my camera housing. He must have been fascinated by his reflection or there was something about me that he really liked, but for the next 20 minutes he wouldn’t leave my side. If I went left, he’d go left. If I stopped and looked at my camera, he would come in close trying to inspect it as well. Between belly rubs and nuzzling against my wetsuit, it seemed like he couldn’t get enough of me. At times he was even swimming between my legs and letting out a high pitched squeal. It’s mother didn’t seem to mind either, she was peacefully sleeping within eyesight - to be honest it almost seemed like she was happy to pawn off the youngster on someone else for awhile. The fun ended however, when a new tour boat and 7 snorkelers came over to inspect what was going on. As they approached, the youngster took one look at them and then headed back to the safety of his mother at the bottom of the spring. It was alright with me though, I just had one of the most incredible animal experiences of my life.
There are only a few places in the United States where you are legally allowed to swim with manatees. These aptly named sea cows, as they are often referred to, are slow moving brown blobs, that can reach lengths of 12 feet and weigh as much as 1600 lbs. Surprisingly, the manatees closest living relatives are elephants, hyrax (a gopher looking animal) and an aardvark. The elephant relation becomes slightly more apparent when you observe them in their natural habitat and notice the toe nails which are very similar to an elephants. While their recovery is surely a success story, there is still a lot that needs to be done to protect these incredible mammals. One of the biggest threats to manatees is of course humans. Over 50% of the manatees I saw had some sort of propeller scar on their body. While no wake zones help keep manatees safe, once out in open water they are often too slow to avoid fast moving boats. In 2017 alone, there were 106 manatees that were killed in boating accidents. This number would have been significantly higher if it wasn’t for rescuers and rehabilitation centers. Including boat deaths, over 500 manatees were found dead in 2017 with red tide and cold weather contributing significantly to that number as well.
Recognizing there is still a significant amount remaining to ensure the ongoing success and rebound of this species, I’ve pledged 25% of the proceeds from any manatee photos I sell to be donated to the Save The Manatees foundation. It’s not much, but every dollar helps ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy manatees and possibly have similar experiences to the incredible ones I have had.
Camera: Canon 7d Mark II
Lens: Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye F3.5/4.5
Camera Housing: Ikelight 200DL Underwater Housing
Dome Port: Ikelight Dome Port
Please Adhere to the Following Rules when Swimming with Manatees: NO
Chasing or pursuing a manatee
Disturbing or touching a resting or feeding manatee
Diving from the surface onto a resting or feeding manatee
Cornering or surrounding a manatee
Riding, holding, grabbing, pinching, poking, prodding, or stabbing a manatee with anything, including your hands and feet
Standing on a manatee
Separating a mother and calf or separating a group of manatees
Giving manatee(s) anything to eat or drink
Actively initiating contact with belted/tagged manatee(s)
Interfering with rescue and research activities
The best time to see manatees is between November and March. The manatees use a variety of springs within Kings Bay/Crystal River area. The colder the weather, the better the chance of observing large numbers of manatees.
Crystal River is approximately 2 hours from both the Tampa and Orlando airports.
There are many tour companies which will take you out to swim with the manatees or you can simply rent a kayak and DIY from a number of local businesses. I use Crystal River Kayak Company.
Even though the water is ~72 degrees, a wetsuit helps enormously and is highly recommended if you take the route of kayaking and DIY.
Early mornings and late evenings are your best chance to have the manatees interact with you. They are most active during this period and will often approach you, due to their curious nature. During the middle of the day, they will often sleep or leave the springs to eat.
Feel free to contact me if you have any further questions.
Have fun out there!