I’ve seen manatees. I’ve come nose to nose with them through the window of an underwater observatory. I must admit to being just the tiniest bit obsessed with manatees at this point. So of course, the only logical next step was to swim with the manatees.
Although manatees have been known to range as far west as Texas and as far north as Virginia in the warmer summer months, most live in the coastal waters of Florida and nearby states. However in colder months, they retreat to the rivers and springs because they cannot tolerate water temperatures lower than 68 degrees. Florida springs are favorite wintering grounds for manatees because the water temperature is 72 degrees year-round, and since Florida’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge supports the largest concentration of these gentle giants, the town of Crystal River was my destination.
I arranged for a half-day boat trip with Wayne White, a semi-retired captain and professional photographer who still takes the occasional visitor in search of manatees. Captain White had everything I needed: goggles, snorkel, fins, wetsuit – even spf 50 sunblock. The only thing I had to bring was a swimsuit and $55. After watching a mandatory video about the laws that have been enacted to protect manatees (thou shalt not, at any time, intentionally or negligently, annoy, molest, harass or disturb any manatee), I boarded Captain White’s pontoon boat from a dock behind the Kings Bay Inn.
We motored slowly through the bay and turned left into Crystal River. A short distance upstream we tied up at the entrance to Three Sisters Springs, just a few feet away from a roped-off area where several manatees were resting on the bottom. I zipped up the wetsuit that was a size too large, pulled on my flippers, and slipped into the river. After recovering from the initial shock of the chilly water, I swam toward the concrete pillars at the mouth of the spring that keep boats out and lined up behind two kayaks and a gaggle of adolescent snorkelers.
As I waited my turn to enter, two enormous manatees suddenly decided to leave the restricted enclosure and swim into the spring. One of them passed to my right; the second swam directly beneath me and rose up, as if offering me a ride. Gently I stroked his leathery skin, surprised to discover it covered in short, spiky hairs. He looked at me curiously through my snorkel mask and then swam through the pillars and was gone. Come, motioned my captain – there are more inside.
I swam through the underwater rocks guarding the narrow entrance and into a magical blue wonderland, where sunbeams pierced the azure water and rippled on the white sand bottom. Along the shoreline, submerged, gnarled tree roots created abstract landscapes. Schools of flashing silver fish, numbering in the thousands, hovered unconcernedly at the bottom. Strangely, they all faced the same direction and when they turned, it was done in unison, as if communicating telepathically. If not for the tap on my arm, I might still be there, mesmerized by the blueness and the exquisite beauty. Again my captain beckoned – follow me!
Around a corner, the spring opened out into a large bowl where six manatees rested on the bottom amongst huge moss-covered boulders. Like synchronized swimmers, they alternated between floating to the surface to grab a snoot-full of air and sinking back to the bottom, where they curled up in a humpback resting posture. Although I tried to keep my distance, the flow of the springs pushed me ever closer to the herd. Their sheer size was intimidating; manatee can reach up to 13 feet in length and weigh up to 3,000 pounds. Worried about being caught between them as they surfaced for air, I was swimming toward the boulders for protection when one of the moss-covered stones began rising to the surface, revealing itself to be beast rather than boulder.
Amazed, I sought out Captain White for an explanation. “Manatees are serviced by cleaner fish, who eat the moss off their bodies. The ones still covered in moss just haven’t had their turn yet.” He also insisted that I need not worry about being hit by a manatee, explaining that each of the stiff hairs I had felt on their body are connected to a nerve, allowing them to sense the slightest sound and movement in the water. However, this was not a theory I was prepared to test. Sitting on top of a single manatee was one thing; being surrounded by an entire herd was quite another. I kept my distance.
After three hours in the 72 degree water, my teeth began to chatter and I started to shake uncontrollably. Oh, how I wanted to stay! But I knew it was time to leave. Captain White checked my lips and concurred – my upper lip was just beginning to turn purple. I dipped my mask underwater for one long last look just as the manatee nearest me floated up for air. Facing one another, we hovered beneath the surface, snout to nose, barely two feet between us. I swear he looked directly at me, knowingly. Then he tipped his nose up, filled his two giant nostrils with air, and plunked back down on the bottom, boulder-like. I’ll never know for sure, but I’d like to believe it was the same manatee that had offered me the piggyback ride.
Swimming with the manatees was an unforgettable experience, full of awe and wonder. I am extremely grateful that there are still places like this in the world, where humans can interact with wildlife in its natural habitat. However, as we raised anchor I couldn’t help but notice the sign posted on the shore at the entrance to the spring, which read: “Help Save Three Sisters Springs.”
I was sad to learn that the current owners of the property surrounding Three Sisters Springs plan to develop the 57 acres into single and multi-family residences. Additionally, they originally applied for a permit to extract 1.2 million gallons of spring water per day. That request was later reduced to 426,000 gallons per day and in February 2003, the Southwest Florida Water Management District approved the withdrawal of up to 100,000 gallons per day, as long as water was pumped from a site away from the spring. Now the owners are considering building a bottling company near the site, although they have also stated they would be willing to sell the property for the right price. Donations are currently being accepted to match state grants in order to purchase the Three Sisters property and protect it in perpetuity. I can only hope they will be successful. It would be criminal to destroy such a natural wonder.