Telling Manatee Tales

Originally published 1 December 2012.

Greetings from Crystal River, FL! Things were getting a little chilly up in DC, so I cleverly scheduled a trip down to sunny Florida for December!

Well, there was a bit more motivation than that. My friend Michael manages a manatee refuge down here for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. I came down to visit with him a bit… and to swim with MANATEES! Here is the adventurous tale!


First of all, it’s important to know that manatees are mammals. They have hair, and they breathe air through their noses. They are also appropriately nicknamed “Sea Cows.” The mamas and babies are even called “cows” and “calves!” Many manatees like to come to the hot springs in Crystal River, FL, in the winter time because it’s warmer here than in the open sea. It’s also their mating season, and this is a nice, calm place for them to rest and start raising their calves.

There are several places where the manatees mate and hide out for the winter around here. Michael and I went to Three Sisters Springs and Kings Springs today because we thought we’d have the best luck at seeing manatees there. Michael has taken me to Three Sisters Springs to swim on a previous trip here about 2 1/2 years ago, but mating season was already finished by then, so I didn’t get to see any manatees. This time, I deliberately scheduled my trip to coincide with the best time of year to see them! It’s been warm down here so there weren’t a lot of manatees to see, but there were enough to give me a thrill! We got to Michael’s office around 8:00 to suit up and head out to Three Sisters Springs.

My fearless leader! 

Step 1: Wetsuit. This was the hardest part of all! I’d tried one on yesterday, with great struggle, mind you! Michael said it was supposed to be tight and uncomfortable, so as long as I could breathe, I was good to go! It was no easier to get the thing on (or off for that matter!) this morning, but it was totally worth it!

Step 2: Driving to Three Sisters. About five minutes away. Requires no other explanation.

Step 3: Getting in! The water felt very warm to me, thank goodness! My feet are too small for any of the flippers from Michael’s office, so I didn’t have to worry about that. The only other accessories I needed were the mask and snorkel. I said the wetsuit was hard, but really the mask gave me the most trouble!

Step 4: Here we go! Again with my smallness, the mask was a little too big, even on the shortest strap adjustment. I kept getting water in the mask, and it didn’t help that I’m completely inept at only breathing in and out my mouth! I’ll get to more of that later so we can all have a good laugh at my expense!

Outward and onward! Michael showed me where to look, and the first time I stuck my face in the water… a manatee swam just a few feet from me! I’d only seen manatees at zoos, in movies and once at a manatee rescue place here in Crystal River, but I never knew how graceful and majestic they could be until today! It’s really amazing what those big, awkward sea cows can do and how they move! Things were going along pretty well for a while. The manatees would be sitting on the bottom, looking like rocks, and then–they’d move! It looked like big boulders rolling around and creeping along the bottom.

A manatee!

Then disaster started… My face is too small, and I discovered I am utterly inept at breathing exclusively through my mouth! I’d be going right along, all excited to be swimming next to manatees, and then air would begin to push through my silly nose! Air bubbles went out of the mask, water came into the mask, my mask started fogging up… But I made the most of my time with what I had! Michael said there weren’t many manatees and they weren’t very interactive, but I was still overjoyed just to be there!

Anyway, back to the moving rock-cows! So, how could I tell a rock from a manatee? Simple… the tail! Their tails are a very distinct shape, and when coming up on a manatee, for some reason that was the thing I noticed first when deciding what it was I was seeing. Occasionally Michael would point out some manatees to me, either resting along the bottom or swimming slowly, gracefully along. I ended up just holding my nose much of the time, since that was really all that would ensure I DIDN’T try to breathe in and out my nose and would help me stay still.

As I floated along, holding my nose, I saw a manatee out of the corner of my eye. It rose itself, floated effortlessly to the surface, stuck its nostrils out to breathe, and let itself back down again. It sort of pulled itself up from the middle–not head first, as a person might do, and not with sweeping fin or tail movements as one might expect, just slowly, elegantly, naturally. The movement was so much more palatial than that, but I hope that gives you an idea!


We also saw several mamas and babies (cows and calves) swimming together or resting together. Michael said they’re 60 pounds at birth, but these were definitely larger babies than that! After a while, I think Michael felt sorry for me and my foggy, leaky-masked self, so he said we’d go back and try a different mask and a different spring where there might be more manatees. I had started to get cold, so I was ok with moving on! We loaded back up in the SUV and went back to Michael’s office.

The water was a bit murkier there at Kings Springs, but I picked up a new mask at Michael’s office and it didn’t leak at all! I even did a good job of keeping my airflow exclusively through my mouth! There was another manatee tour going on with several other people, but this time there were enough manatees to go around! It took longer for me to see them, but again, I just looked for the tails! These seacows were ok with getting close, too!

I mean, how could they stay away from this? 

Michael and I were swimming next to each other, and he pointed over to my left and there–was a manatee! He was gliding by, lickety-split and fast-like, and I let out a little squeal of surprise! Of course Michael laughed at me, but I was delighted enough that I didn’t care! The thing that really amazed me is how fast they can go without seeming to do any work with their fins until they just absolutely HAVE to! And it’s as if they create no stir in the water at all. There’d be one swimming literally inches from me, and I wouldn’t even notice a change in the water.

And then one was coming right toward me! I knew we’re not really supposed to touch them, but they can touch us if they want. I stayed still until it was right up next to me, it grazed me, and then I started flipping out a little bit. I didn’t want to touch it and scare it, nor did I want to get pushed out of the way and possibly hurt (those things are HUGE!), so in my attempt to quietly and calmly move away, I think I scared him! But apparently he’s a lot braver than I, because he came back by me. Michael let me know it’s ok if I touched the manatee, so I did! Their skin is a lot tougher than I thought it would be–a different texture entirely! It reminded me of leather, very rough, gray leather.

We swam around a bit longer and saw a few more manatees. Some rolled over, others scratched on rocks, several even came up to breathe just feet away–and I had no idea they were even so close to us under there! I hope that if ever you get an inkling to swim with manatees, you’ll do it! I know just the place!

So that was our big adventure! We went back to the office to change out of the wetsuits and dry off (the wetsuits was as difficult to get off as it was to get on!).

Our next adventure involves PROFESSIONAL MERMAIDS! Stay tuned!

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