Swimming With the Manatees

Holi, Colours, New Arrivals and A Boat Trip with Eagles Travels with Allie.

  1. Holi, Colours, New Arrivals and A Boat Trip with Eagles
  2. Patnem and Palolem
  3. Farewells, Birthdays and Exciting Arrivals
  4. Turtle Beach & Cooking Class
  5. A Boat Excursion to Chola Beach

Yesterday we drove up to Crystal River on the coast north west of Orlando to snorkel and swim with the manatees in Kings Bay. This is a semi enclosed bay that feeds into the Crystal River and then the ocean and is fed by a number of natural springs. Manatees – of which there are thousands in the Gulf of Mexico – cannot tolerate water temperatures below 68F. In the winter the sea temperatures drop below this and so they come into the bay to be near the spring outlets which are at a constant 72F. It’s a winter warmth break for them and they lie around dozing in the warm water and eating an unimaginable amount of sea grasses every day.

Bob and I had been here and done this before in about 2004 or 5 with the girls and had magical memories of it. We went in a boat into rivers around the bay and the boat captain brought loads of lettuce and we stood in waist deep clear water, snorkelled by the manatees and they came up and fed from us. They also liked having their bellies gently rubbed, but not their backs. Their backs have hairs on them which they use to sense things. It was a lovely experience for all concerned.

However, things have changed. Conservation rules now mean that you cannot touch or feed the manatees and you cannot stand on the bottom. In order to stop them starving, the whole bottom of Kings Bay has been planted with genetically modified eel grass, which “regrows” in a matter of weeks. While this is undoubtedly better for the manatees than to have to rely on a supplement of lettuce, it makes for a less enjoyable experience. It has also led to a huge reduction in water clarity in the bay and in the river. The reason you aren’t allowed to stand is that it is too easy to kick up the underlying silt and reduce the visibility even more.

Anyway, we were 6 on a boat with Captain Mike’s Swim With the Manatees. The market leader in Crystal Bay. In retrospect, that was a mistake. They are obviously at the point where they don’t have to care anymore. Our water guide was a very nice girl. She was about the only nice person we encountered at Captain Mike’s. The girl in the shop was brusque and very disinterested. The captain was on the edge of rude and a blowhard. He was dismissive of any suggestion whether from us or from the water guide. Their equipment was good – wetsuits etc were in good condition and they were sterilising them between wearings. However there was not even water offered on the boat, whereas others have hot drinks. I wouldn’t book with them again.

We found the first manatee within about 50 yards of the boat launch. A big female, steadily hoovering her way through the sea grass. She took no notice of us at all, just kept on going while we swam alongside her for about an hour or so. At times her eyes would close and she would just sort of head plant down into the grass, sleep for a few minutes and then come up for some air and go on. They have to come up to breathe air very regularly. Manatees are related to elephants and they do bear a resemblance – their thick wrinkly skin, toenails, short trunk like face.

Fi and the manatee
Fi and the manatee

When we started back to the boat, the captain said, “make the most of her, it could be the only manatee you see today”. I took little notice of this because he’d told us there were thousands in the bay and we’d seen them on the little prep film we’d been shown back in the shop. But actually, it wasn’t far off the truth. We ventured further into the bay and we could see other boats moored up with snorkellers around them, presumably viewing a manatee but we didn’t join them. Eventually he put us in where we could see 2 or 3 manatee surfacing to breathe although there were other snorkellers there. I was in first, and it took me back immediately to my first ever UK scuba dive in a place called Littleton Pit. Akin to pea soup. The visibility was absolutely zero. At several points the manatee surfaced right next to me and I had a tantalising view of its nose but under the water I couldn’t see it at all even though it was so close. We swam around a bit in the soup and then got back on board. Disappointing.

So… I don’t know. We had a lovely hour swimming with a manatee. Was the 3 hour tour worth $79 each? Probably not. Maybe we were unlucky. I read reviews online of people who were surrounded by manatee and interacted with them hugely. However, these people seem to have been on very early morning tours eg 6am whereas we were out at 10. I do know that these manatee tours are now huge business for the area – there are loads of boats, loads of kayak rentals etc all taking you to see the manatees. Maybe that leads to a level of dishonesty about the likelihood of seeing many. Probably it has lead to the need to enforce much stricter rules to protect these lovely creatures. My feeling is, that you now get a much better view of manatees by visiting them in the inland crystal clear springs, even though you can’t get in the water with them.

We went out to Outpost last night for our final dinner of prime rib. Yum yum. We were absolutely exhausted to be fair. 3 hours in the car, a lot of swimming in the sea (no fins allowed) and a very hot day. Back in Orlando, it was sultry and there’s rain and thunder in the forecast.