When I was a kid, my dad started a short-term gig in Florida. We might have been there for only a few months, but I remember learning about and falling in love with manatees. These passive marine behemoths just struck me as extremely sweet. I remember seeing their backs all torn up by boat motors, and my heart went out to them.
Years later, I went to the Dallas Aquarium and saw a manatee swimming around the tank and thought, “How cool would it be to swim with that dude?” Googling it, I learned you could swim with the manatees in Crystal River, Florida.
I wrote it on “bucket lists” and thought about it repeatedly, but I just never did it for whatever reason.
My son fell in love with the noble manatee as well. Someone gifted him an assortment of little plastic sea creatures, and the manatee was one of his favorites. I ended up buying him a larger manatee toy, and he loved the parent/child dynamic of them.
So I asked him a few weeks ago if he would like to swim with them, and he said he would love to. My son always steered away from using a mask and snorkel, preferring his goggles. After a bit of time in the pool last week, he became a snorkel pro.
Last Saturday, we flew to Orlando on Frontier Airlines. Their drink and snack menu mentioned you could ask for a free trading card. Wouldn’t you know, one of the cards displayed a manatee on the front? We asked the flight attendant if she had any of the manatee cards since we were going to Florida to see the manatees, and she found one for us! We were so pumped.
After arriving, we picked up a rental car and drove the hour and a half to Crystal River. The following day, we woke at dawn and went to the Exporida gift shop. They hooked us up with wetsuits, gave us the rules about interacting with manatees, and then put us on a boat.
Steve, the captain, drove around for a while, and we were all looking for signs of a manatee. Eventually, we spotted one. The six people on the tour as well as our guide Maddie, all got in the water.
Let me tell you, there are better times to view manatees than summer. There are fewer tourists but also fewer manatees. There was an estimated 15-30 manatees in the bay, and in January, there are around 800. The spring water in Crystal River is 72 degrees year-round, so the manatees flock back during the winter months.
Also, the water was pretty murky, and during the winter, you can find the manatees at the springs, where it is much clearer.
That said, my son and I still had a fantastic time. We looked at each other, and I said, “We have to come back in January!” He heartily agreed.
As I said earlier, I had seen a manatee before at an aquarium, but seeing one in person was way different. I would start at the tail and swim toward the head, and it felt like a long time before getting there. The average manatee is 10 feet long. The females tend to be more bulky than the males, and the one we swam with was huge.
More manatee facts!
You can tell the female by its little nipple where its fin meets its body.
Manatees have full-body whiskers; they kind of resemble a cactus.
Manatees are one of the few animals that will continually grow their teeth. Their teeth (all molars) grow like a conveyor belt, starting in the back and moving to the front as they are slowly ground down by chewing all that seagrass. Oh, and when chomping the seagrass, it sounds like your cousin plowing through a bag of chips.
Manatee calves live with their mother for two years.
Manatees collect a lot of moss. This is like a sunblock for them.
It is illegal to hurt, annoy or harass manatees in any way. You aren’t supposed to touch them, but the one we saw ended up touching us. And our hearts!