An hour and a half from Orlando, Florida lies the sleepy town of Crystal River. Tourists come here in the winter months to swim with the West Indian manatees, that come inland to escape the cold waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Also called sea cows, they are large vegetarians , 9 to 10 feet long, and weigh approximately 1,000 pounds. They are related to elephants, are slow moving, and very gentle. There are only 10,000 West Indian manatees left in the world, so Florida has made November Manatee Awareness Month. Tours are regulated to protect the manatees, and tourists can be fined if they do not obey the rules.
Did You Know?
Some historians believe that manatees were what sailors thought were mermaids. On his first journey to the Americas, Christopher Columbus wrote in his journal that he saw three mermaids, which rose out of the sea. He went on to say that they were not so beautiful as their faces had some masculine traits. Biographers contribute his mermaids to manatees.
What is it like?
We decided to go see the manatees in late December, when both of us had some vacation time. Because silt on the bottom of the river mixes with the water, it is hard to see the manatees as the day progresses. So we booked an early morning tour with the company Birds Underwater Dive Company, and began our adventure. We donned our wet suits, watched a video on the proper way to view the manatees, and boarded our boat. The weather was cool, foggy, and dark outside. Locals were kayaking, enjoying the wildlife around the river. We watched cormorants dive and catch fish, and ate a fun breakfast of donuts and coffee before entering the water. By the time we watched the sunrise, we were ready to get in the water and look for manatees. At first it was hard to spot any, but our guides were very good at pointing them out. There were very few in the water that day, but the ones that we did see were awesome. One young, very friendly manatee actually came to look at me, and we almost collided! The face of this gentle creature was one of curiosity and playfulness. As we were snorkeling, the water was quite cool and refreshing, and we noticed that freshwater was bubbling up from the bottom of the river, a very unusual sight.
Although there were only a few manatees during our tour, we were excited to see the few we did, getting so close that you could make eye contact with them. They are large, magnificent creatures with a rich history. Swimming with manatees is more fun than a Disney World ride, and worth a detour from Orlando.