Testing Blog With New Layout

Testing Blog With New Layout

Testing Blog With New Layout

Growing up in San Diego, I visited Sea World frequently and observed Florida manatees in their animal rescue tank. It was so peaceful to watch these gentle giants slowly drift along sucking up lettuce on the surface of their big tank. I was shocked to see the terrible injuries the rescued manatees had sustained from boats and I was saddened at the thought that they might never be able to return to the wild. I wanted so much for them to someday return home to the clear springs of Florida again.

Rescued Manatees Recovering at Sea World
San Diego in 2004.

On my first trip to South Florida

On my first trip to South Florida and the Keys in 2005, I was very excited at the prospect of seeing wild manatees, but I was disappointed that I never saw any on my visit. I didn’t realize at the time that I was visiting in the wrong season to see manatees. They are generally not here in great numbers during the summer months. For years, I planned to return to vacation in Florida and hoped that perhaps I would finally see manatees in the wild. I put that trip to Florida on my nature experience must-do list.

A stunning Gulf sunset at Delnor-Wiggins State Park in Naples, Florida.

across the U.S. from California to Florida

When my family and I sold our home in 2017 and went full-time RVing for a year and a half, we drove across the U.S. from California to Florida. We loved the beautiful Florida landscapes and wildlife so much, we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave. I’m a California girl at heart and I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would live in Florida, but I fell in love with it from the moment I walked on the sugar sand beaches and dipped my feet in the warm teal-green waves. We traveled from the gorgeous Emerald coast of the Panhandle down to the tropical Gulf coast of South Florida, exploring as we went. Luckily, we found our forever home in beautiful Southwest Florida, and I’m so glad that there are so many places in my county where I can observe manatees in the wild.

Spotting the tail fluke of a wild manatee for the first time on Sanibel Island in 2018.

J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

he first time I saw wild manatees was at J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on beautiful Sanibel Island. I was so thrilled to spot a large family of them playing and splashing their tail flukes together in the estuary.Since then, I’ve had several incredible experiences kayaking with large groups of playful and curious manatees. I really fell for Florida’s own sweet and chubby mermaids and I wondered if there was somewhere I could swim with them face to face. I learned there is only one county in Florida where you can swim with manatees, so I added that experience to my eco-adventure bucket list. I watched videos, read blogs, books, and websites about manatees and started preparing myself for my dream trip to see them by learning about their biology, behavior, and communication.

Circular ripples and bubbles let you know that manatees are close by.

across the U.S. from California to Florida

Thousands of manatees begin their annual migration away from the frigid waters of the Northeast (they have been seen as far north as Rhode Island!) to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico every year around November. These massive marine mammals are extremely temperature sensitive and cannot tolerate water under 68 degrees for very long because they don’t have much body fat and they have low metabolism. They will begin to show signs of hypothermia and cold-stress syndrome in the form of white necrotic patches on their faces and bodies when they are in frigid water. When water temperatures drop below 68 for an extended period during winter, manatee mortality rates can be high. Manatees join the thousands of snowbirds from the north each winter in Florida, but their long migration is a matter of survival. Hundreds can be found languidly lounging and contentedly munching on sea grass in the 72 degree waters of more than seventy freshwater springs of Kings Bay every winter. They stay in Crystal River in large aggregations (that’s what you call a group of manatees) until March, but the ideal time to swim with them is December through February.

Manatees need
warm water at
least 68 degrees to survive.

An aggregation of manatees resting. Mama manatee nursing her calf.

MANATEES IN PERIL

A recent census count found around 6300 individual manatees in Florida. They are protected by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, making it illegal to chase, touch, feed, or harass them. Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission just recently downgraded them to threatened status instead of endangered. Their population has increased by around 1250 individuals since the 1990’s, when they were critically endangered. This is excellent news, but we continue to see many manatees injured by propeller boats and collisions every year. Sadly, pollution and algae-infested waters have killed the sea grass in some areas of Florida in the last year, leading to over 700 deaths in 2021 due to starvation.

A manatee bears the permanent scars of a collision with a propeller boat.

SWIMMING WITH MANATEES IN CITRUS COUNTY

Citrus County, Florida is the only county in Florida where you can legally swim with manatees. Their economy is almost entirely dependent on the tourism brought to them by manatee encounters, so the state of Florida allows their manatee swim tourism to continue with strict rules in place. The small towns of Homosassa and Crystal River both offer many opportunities for manatee swims in Kings Bay. There are dozens of companies you can choose from to take you out to swim with manatees, and it can be a bit overwhelming to choose one, but I was careful to read reviews before I made my decision. I wanted a company whose employees truly cared about the safety and welfare of the manatees, would follow the state laws, would follow Covid safety protocols to keep their employees and customers safe, and would be dedicated to providing a memorable and educational experience for our family. That is exactly what I found with River Ventures Manatee tours in Crystal River, Florida. It was easy to book our tour online and I received confirmation emails and a confirmation call before the tour. Friendly office staff (including two sweet office dogs, Grizzly and Captain) greeted our family and explained what our experience would be like and answered any questions we had. We were very appreciative that they all wore masks and we wore ours as well. They asked us to watch an informative video about “manatee manners,” safety rules, and Florida’s laws when swimming with manatees. Then we squeezed into our wetsuits and on board a van for a quick two minute drive to the dock. Our guide took some nice family pictures of us in our wetsuits on the dock before boarding for our manatee adventure. It was only 3-4 minutes to reach the springs, so we didn’t have to waste much of our precious three hour swim time with a long boat trip.

An amazing family bonding experience!

JJ, is also a professional photographer

Our family of five reserved a private tour on a comfortable pontoon boat that was enclosed and heated to keep us from freezing in our wetsuits! Hot cocoa, drinks, and snacks were provided, which helped us warm up on such a cold morning. Our guide, JJ, is also a professional photographer with a kind and friendly personality and a lot of knowledge about manatees and the local area. It is obvious he really cares about their well-being. He took the wonderful photos and video featured in this blog during our guided swim, freeing me to truly and literally immerse myself in this magical manatee experience and enjoy it without extra distractions.

The warm and
comfortable pontoon
boat was much
appreciatedon a very
chilly morning.

I enjoyed having someone else take photos, for once, and I got to be in the family picture!

River Ventures provided

I knew it was going to feel very cold in the water, so the full wetsuits that River Ventures provided for us were an absolute must. Before descending the boat ladder into the springs, I kept telling myself that 72 degrees sounded pretty pleasant compared to the brisk and breezy 55 degree temperature outside. It felt even colder than I expected when we first entered the water. Painfully so. The chilly water began creeping through my wetsuit and spread until my teeth chattered. I think I gasped for a moment when I was fully immersed. It took about five minutes for me to catch my breath, relax, and get used to it. As long as I moved my arms, it helped me keep my body warm enough. We couldn’t kick our feet, so we floated on noodles and paddled with our arms, so as not to disturb the manatees or stir up silt. Flippers are not needed, as they only stir up silt and can injure manatees and other swimmers. We used our own full face masks, which was so much easier for visibility, with no leakage or fogging up. After many frustrating snorkeling trips with bad face masks that leaked and fogged up, I was so grateful to have the full face mask.

Bring your own full face mask for a hassle-free snorkeling experience. No leaking!

MANATEE SEA GRASS RESTORATION PROJECT

During our three-hour swim, we visited Kings Bay and swam in Hunter Bay Springs, which can also be accessed from the shore of Hunter Springs park. The water was aqua-green and crystal clear when people were not in the immediate vicinity. As I explored the Springs, I saw waving sea grass covering the sandy-silt bed of the springs. Our guide explained how hardy and salt-resistant “Rock Star” eel grass had been replanted as part of a very successful restoration project in the springs area to replace the sea grasses that were destroyed due to high salinity during the last hurricane. Sea grass beds are the nurseries of the sea, and manatees and many other aquatic creatures must have it to thrive and survive.

Manatee munching. A sea grass restoration has been extremely successful in Crystal River.

SNORKELING HUNTER SPRINGS

As people entered the springs from shore and began stirring up clouds of silt with their feet, it dramatically affected visibility and the water became murky. Our guide told us it had been absolute chaos the week before during the holiday break. I chose to visit after the holidays because I knew there would be a lot less people. If you like a more tranquil experience, plan for a non-holiday weekday morning swim. Manatees are typically most active in the early morning around sunrise.

We had a later morning tour at 10:30 am (try getting three kids ready for a 6:30 a.m. tour!), so the manatees were having their morning naps. My first view of a manatee as I swam into the shallows of Hunter Bay springs was an enormous female sleeping facedown in the sand. She looked lifeless at first because she was face-planted into the silt and still as stone.

It became very
difficult to see when
people began to stir up
silt walking around nearby.

My first view of a sleeping manatee. They look like gray rocks when they are sleeping on the bottom.

She really looked like a big
gray rock

She really looked like a big gray rock covered in moss until she suddenly levitated in slow motion from the bottom and drifted to the surface to get air. Manatees can hold their breath for up to twenty minutes when resting, and usually come up to the surface every three to five minutes when they are active. It was quite amusing to see something so massive look so effortless and light as she slowly drifted upward like a colossal blimp!

When actively swimming, manatees must surface every 3-5 minutes to breathe.

juvenile female had suddenly appeared next to me

I was so engrossed in watching her that I didn’t even notice that a curious juvenile female had suddenly appeared next to me. Having the full face mask on and floating on a noodle limits your field of vision and ability to turn quickly, so I was quite surprised to see her within two feet of me! My first face-to-face manatee encounter was absolutely delightful and put an enormous smile on my face. The young female approached me with interest and began barrel-rolling and coyly looking at me upside down, which is a manatee play invitation. Having a chubby, wrinkly manatee youngster peeking at you upside down with its tiny eyes and its flippers folded on its chest is about as cute as it gets! It was amusing watching her scratch an itch with her flippers, which had toenails that looked just like an elephant’s (their closest cousin).

Hello there, human! A curious young manatee comes in close to investigate.

adult manatee adjusting its two lip

I was also entertained and fascinated while watching a huge adult manatee adjusting its two lip sections independently. When you don’t have hands, you need prehensile lips that move independently to help gather aquatic vegetation. It was comical to watch its flexible lip sections moving in different directions, covered in stiff and sensitive whiskers called vibrissae. I wondered if it had itchy lips. It reminded me of when I met a baby elephant as a child in the San Diego Children’s Zoo and it reached out to me with its trunk and touched my face with the prehensile tip of its trunk! It was so flexible and could gently grab at my face. Elephants are the closest relative of the manatee and use their prehensile trunk much like manatees use their lips to grab and gather aquatic plants, and to sense things in their environment.

Manatees have flexible prehensile lips and use them much like their closest relative, the elephant.

Hello there, human! A curious young manatee comes in close to investigate.

mama and baby together in Hunter

I was delighted to see my first mama and baby together in Hunter Springs and the baby was nursing on-the-go. After a year-long gestation, manatee calves nurse and stay with their moms for about two years. The little calf was swimming along clamped on its mama’s nipple, which is located on the bottom side of its front flipper. It was so much like watching a baby elephant nursing.

Milk to-go, please! Manatee calves will nurse while mama is swimming.

EXPLORING AN UNDERGROUND SPRING

We swam away from the shallow and more crowded Hunter Bay and our visibility greatly improved as we left the boisterous groups of people behind. Our guide showed us a hidden spring with warm water flowing up and a cavern that descended deep under the floor of the springs. It was filled with fish, especially mangrove snappers, some of them swimming down through the small cavern opening. My husband and son dived down to look inside and were amazed at how far down they could see through the opening with a light from our guide’s camera. We were surprised that at this point, we had already been in the water for ninety minutes. Time flies when you are exploring a fascinating underwater world!

Milk to-go, please!
Manatee calves will
nurse while mama is swimming.

halfway point in our three-hour

This halfway point in our three-hour swim was when we really began to feel the cold, and it became difficult for our three kids to endure. They are all very slender with a lot less fat than their parents! We joked that we have all the blubber and that they and the manatees don’t. Manatees may look like they have blubber, but they do not. They only have an inch of fat and can become hypothermic just like us. Our kids really enjoyed seeing the manatees and fish, but decided to bail out (with blue lips and teeth chattering) at the halfway mark to visit with our captain and get warm on the boat with hot cocoa and snacks.

The kids really enjoyed it, but found the cold
difficult to endure.

THE BEAUTY OF JURASSIC SPRINGS

We boarded the boat with the kids and took a short ride to our last snorkeling location, Jurassic Springs. That actually gave my husband and I the chance to have a more relaxing swim and explore Jurassic springs together with our guide JJ. It was a really bonding and memorable experience to hold hands and float above the serenity of the snoozing manatees. I love taking the kids on our adventures, but it’s always a challenge keeping an eye on all three of them in the water when we snorkel.

Beautiful Jurassic Springs was my favorite part of the 3 hour swim experience. A perfect nature date!

Jurassic Springs was my favorite part of our manatee

Jurassic Springs was my favorite part of our manatee swim experience because it was deeper, the water was incredibly clear, there were less people swimming, over a dozen manatees, and huge schools of fish. Our guide told us that there were unusually large schools of fish in the springs that morning, possibly because the weather was a bit warmer that day. As I looked down through my mask, I was dazzled by scores of mangrove snappers with their lovely purple diamond patterns flashing in the morning light, and massive schools of graceful silver Crevalle Jacks with their flowing yellow fins, spiraling in slow-motion below us. It was utterly magical and so lovely with the sunlight piercing through the water and sending shimmering rays of light up through the rotating schools to the surface. It was mesmerizing to watch, as it seemed as if the slowly spinning fish were shooting out rays of golden glittering light.

Tranquility and beauty awaits in the glittering rays of the springs. Crevalle Jacks swirled in the sunlit rays below us.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.