As a native Floridian, I have been spoiled by nature all of my life. Rich green ferns and vines, towering palm trees, colossal pines, and springs all around spewing crystal clear waters into rich blue basins. Not only are we blessed with a plethora of natural springs and rivers, but we also have over 400 miles of enchanting coastline. Only in a few other states can you watch the sun rise over one ocean, drive a few hours, and see the sun set into another beautiful horizon. I have been making more of an effort not to take these natural beauties for granted by getting out and exploring this amazing state even more.
This past weekend, I had the urge to swim with the manatees. I have seen them, fed them, awed at them, but I had never swam with them. There are several options around north central Florida, but I chose Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland, FL. It was a pleasant drive and the weather was gorgeous. The river hadn’t gotten cold enough to push the manatees into the spring itself, but they were feeding in the river just past the mouth of the springs. From the lookout dock, it was hard to get a solid count, but you could clearly see their silhouettes just under the surface and the occasional snout sticking out for air. There were just a handful of other people watching them, and no one in the water. “Perfect!” I thought, and went back to the truck to load up and get the camera ready.
My pace was so quick and excited I was nearly skipping making my way down the boardwalk back to the river. There was the occasional stirring in the surrounding leaves of a squirrel running away or a turkey vulture scavenging. I was carrying my fins and mask/snorkel in one hand and my camera in the other, smiling and greeting each couple as I passed them. Back at the river, I looked over and saw the manatees were still swimming and in the same area. There was a breeze stirring up the surface water making it harder to see them, but their protruding snouts solidified my findings.
Happy, eager, and excited to jump in, I turned to make my way down the stairs when a green-worded sign caught my eyes- “NO SWIMMING!” Fine print on the sign read that this rule was due to alligator risk, but made no mention of manatees. As an experienced gator handler and very strong swimmer, I rationalized my disobedience by thinking “well, I’m snorkeling, not swimming…” and jumped in the water.
The risk was well worth it! Within a few seconds of gently paddling towards the area I had seen them from above, there was a baby manatee just over four feet long swimming by his mother. Since they were in the river and not the springs, there was a bit of debris floating around as well as the easily disturbed sand every time they bit a chunk of river lettuce. But even with less-than-ideal visibility, it was still a magical experience.
At first, they seem confused as to what I was and what I was doing near their pod. They would kick away if the current pushed me too close and the larger ones expressed curiosity by staring at me. After about 10 minutes though, they understood I was no danger and began surrounding me, swimming directly towards me, and even right under me! I went from trying to get close enough for a picture to having to think fast to avoid being ran into by them! They were so big, gentle, and much faster swimmers than I thought. The two babies stayed close to their mothers’ sides and swam gracefully with them from one grazing spot to the next.
The sad reality of how at risk manatees are was far too clear being in such close proximity. There were clear propeller scars on every tail but the babies’, multiple scratches and scars all over their backs from inattentive boaters not respecting their conservation or the no-wake zones, and tails chunks missing from them. The creatures were sweet, curious, and ever so gentle; more boaters need to be aware of their surroundings and actively work to protect manatees.
If you would like to swim with manatees as well, I recommend the traditional route by taking a manatee tour with a licensed tour group. The most popular area is Crystal River, with its Three Sisters Springs. There, you will ride a boat to the appropriate swimming area and get to see them in crystal-clear waters with no murkiness (like in my experience). Enjoy these few pictures, and enjoy Florida!