Today is Manatee Appreciation Day and I want to celebrate by sharing once in a lifetime experience I had with everyone’s favorite sea mammal.
There’s something about these slow-moving, wide-eyed, round-bodied herbivores that pulls at our heartstrings. From the time I was little I loved learning about them, looking at photos of them and dreamed of seeing one in the wild. Landlocked in St. Louis, Missouri, this was going to be a very difficult dream to tackle.
When I moved to Pensacola, I had heard of them occasionally moseying through the Gulf and people spotting them on a clear day, but I still wasn’t holding my breath on the off chance that I would encounter one. Upon talking to locals and doing my own research, all signs were pointing to one place — Crystal River, home and safe haven for the Florida Manatees.
Located about a 6 hours drive south of Pensacola or an hour north of Tampa is a sleepy, old Florida, manatee mad town of Crystal River. Signs of manatee swims are posted along the highway, rows of manatee mailboxes line the neighborhoods and manatee murals paint the buildings — there is nod at the town’s claim to fame on every corner and you can’t blame them for it either.
Not sure about you, but it’s pretty easy to convince my friends that a girl’s trip is in order, add in a chance to swim with a manatee and you will win every time. Just like that, three of us were headed to Crystal River for a long weekend. While spotting animals in the wild is never a guarantee, I liked our chances because we were visiting during November. Peak manatee season in Crystal River is November to March when the manatees flock to the Three Sister’s Springs where the temperature is a warm 72 degrees year round — yes, that is warm for the manatees.
After watching a short video tutorial on how to interact with the manatees we were headed to the boat. The tutorial was short and informative — it reminded me of dating advice a grandmother or mother would give: no physical contact, do not pursue or chase, observe passively and let them come to you.
Jokes aside, the strict guidelines are in place for good reason. Besides the heavy population of manatees in this area, the many regulations are in place to protect the vulnerable and threatened West Indies Manatee population. As a basic rule of thumb, just float and let the manatee dictate the experience.
Twenty minutes later we were on the boat and our guide was taking us to a cove where she had recently seen some of her ‘favorite’ friends. A lot of the guides have lived there their entire lives and can spot the same manatee year after year because of specific scars or markings they have. We climbed down the ladder into the chilly water and almost immediately were pleased to find three manatees just below the boat. A mama and her baby being two of them.
As stated in the video, the manatees were indeed very curious and wanted to see what us and our boat were all about. I would be lying if I didn’t say I was a little intimidated at first. You are underwater with a 1,000 lb. sea creature after all. It doesn’t take long to become acclimated and completely obsessed though, especially when they are swimming right up to you nuzzling your mask.
Our guide mentioned she had once before seen a manatee mistake long hair for seagrass and try and graze on it, but to stay calm if this happens — manatees do not have biting teeth, only grinding teeth. As it turns out, I have long, dirty blonde hair that actually does somewhat resemble seagrass when engulfed in water. And as if this day couldn’t get any better, the mama manatee sure did mistake my long locks for a delicious bunch of aquatic vegetation.
For about 30 seconds the manatee munched on my hair which felt more like a shampoo wash than anything. In a physical sense I played it cool, but in my head I was totally fan girling out. Laughing inside my snorkel and completely filling it with water, but it was totally worth it. This has to mean 10 years of good luck, and I should probably buy a lottery ticket immediately, right? When the manatee finished its morning snack (PSA – no hair was lost during this encounter), we snorkeled around for another hour letting the manatees come and go as they please.
To date, this has been one of my favorite experiences not only in Florida, but in all of my travels and thought I would share it in honor of Manatee Appreciation Day. We are lucky to share our state with these gentle giants and Crystal River takes great pride in being at the forefront of manatee conservation, and is continually reported with the lowest manatee deaths in the state. Learn more about the Crystal River Conservation Efforts and how you can help here.
And lastly, let’s all all honor the manatees and take a page from their book today — be curious, be kind, be peaceful and spend most the day eating.