For years I have read about and seen television programs about how one can dive/snorkel with the manatees, in certain parts of Florida. One of the cities most noted for this opportunity is Crystal River, Florida---located on the western side of the Florida panhandle. As luck would have it, I found myself driving down Crystal River's "main drag" after dark, on December 30.
Then I saw it! A neon sign on the end of a large building, beckoning me to "SNORKEL WITH THE MANATEES". I didn't really think they would be open, since it was 6:10 PM, but I decided to open the front door and find out.
Although they close at 6 PM, the door was still unlocked, and the clerks were behind the counter, in the process of closing up for the night. A very nice and patient young man stopped his closing-down tasks to answer the one gillion questions about snorkeling with the manatees that I peppered him with. They only had one spot left for a trip the next morning, and it would be departing before daybreak. I paid my money, signed the paperwork, and proceeded to my hotel to check in and try to get a little sleep before my big adventure, scheduled for VERY EARLY on New Year's Eve! I took this photo of the front on their store, before we departed (by a caravan of private cars) to our destination of Homosassa Springs.
I would like to say that I thoroughly researched the various outfitters that operate manatee trips, and after a thorough analysis, chose the American Pro Diving Center ( www.americanprodiving.com ). However, that would be inaccurate. I ended up on their boat for one reason only---they left the light on for me! As a stranger driving through Crystal River after dark, their lighted sign was the only one I saw! Fortunately for me, they provided an OUTSTANDING experience for me, and I would highly recommend them!
The American Pro Diving Center has a well-stocked store of all items needed for diving and snorkeling. Plus, there is an indoor pool, where they teach scuba diving.
This is the patient young man that signed me up on the night before the trip, and he was in the shop early the next morning as well. He is shown here getting the numerous thermos bottles ready, and filled with hot chocolate, for loading onto to each of their boats going out that day.
The folks who will be snorkeling go into the shop's equipment room, to be fitted with their dive fins and wet suit. They also provide the dive mask. I had a copy of my eyeglass prescription with me, so they were able to fit me with a dive mask, with lens to correct my visual inadequacies.
Before we departed the dive center, we were all required to watch a video that told about the manatee, and the rules that swimmers/divers/snorkelers/boaters must follow, in order to not disturb, harass, or endanger them. Manatee information if provided by the Florida Department of Fish and Wildlife, and is available at www.myfwc.com .
It was just starting to get daylight as we finished loading the pontoon boat at Homosassa Springs. The location we used is considered their "premium" tour because there are fewer people, fewer boats, and less boat traffic. Plus it is a shallow location, making it easier to spot the manatees. Our guide told us the manatees would look like giant brown potatoes, laying on the bottom. One reason the tour leaves so early is because as the day wears on, the manatees leave their overnight site at Homosassa Springs, and head out into the Gulf waters during the day.
This photo shows the youngest and oldest females on the trip. I will let you guess which one is me!
Our boat captain gave each of us a squirt of the special solution to put on our masks to keep them from fogging up when we got underwater. Likewise, he reminded that it was THE LAW that we had to keep our snorkel tops above the water surface at all times. Diving down to touch the manatee is forbidden. However, he told us that IF the manatee approached us, it was okay to let them nudge us. They are mostly herbivores (plant eaters), and do not have teeth that would cause injuries to humans.
As we motored to our snorkeling location, the captain gave us some information about manatees. They are marine mammals that grow up to 12 feet long, weigh as much as 1300 pounds, and have paddle-like flippers. The word "manatee" is a reference to the mammary glands that are under the flippers of the female. They are also sometimes called "sea cows" and dugongs. Their closest living relative is an elephant, which is one reason their thick, wrinkled skin resembles that of an elephant.
Since manatee spend about 50% of their day sleeping, one section of our snorkeling location was completely roped off, and swimmers were NOT to go beyond those markers. That was the official "Manatee Sleep Zone"! It would have been rude to wake them up early---especially on New Year's Eve! However, the manatees have to surface for air about every 20 minutes, so pedestrian visitors who use the viewing dock shown in this photo, are likely to see them if they wait around long enough. When the manatee are not sleeping or surfacing for air, they spend the rest of their time grazing in shallow waters of 3 - 6 feet.
When our boat arrived around daylight, there was only one other dive boat in the vicinity, so our captain was quite pleased! The light boat traffic is probably one reason we were able to see about a dozen manatee during our swim. I felt very fortunate, because on the previous day, the group had only seen two! The "close encounter" I had with a manatee was magnificent! As soon as I got into the water, I could tell the excitement had my heart beating really fast, so I just held onto the anchor line, to let myself get calmed down and get comfortable with my mask and snorkel. After the silt cleared, I realized I was floating directly above one of the creatures---maybe just one foot above it!! About the time I realized how close I was, it rolled over, looked directly into my eyes, and raised both flippers above its head at the same time---like it was giving that same gesture that I have with the photo at the end of my blog! That is the Hebrew symbol for praise! Believe me, I was praising God, right along with that manatee!
When we came out of the water, we were all quite cold, and told to get out of our wet suits as soon as possible, to keep from getting even more chilled. The captain poured up hot chocolate to get the warm-up process started. It really hit the spot!
The pontoon boat was equipped with clear vinyl sides, that we lowered for the trip back to the dock. That helped keep us a little warmer. Also, as you can see there are life jackets on the boat, so that anyone who wants to snorkel with the aid of a life jacket is able to do so.
When we got back to the marina, the captain started a pot of fresh coffee for us, and proceeded to download the video he had taken of all of us swimming with the manatee. He had told us in advance that he would come around to each of us when we were swimming to get a close up of us for the video, so it was fun watching not only the manatee, but also waiting for our "cameo appearance" in this SPECTACULAR New Year's Eve video!
Considering the low light conditions and the amount of silt stirred up by our movement, I thought the videographer did a good job! The videos were available for purchase when we got back to the diving center in Crystal River.
Once we got back to the diving center, we turned in our gear, and looked around for a souvenir to remind us of our experience. Seeing all these books about manatees brings to mind a trivia question for you: "Are manatees mentioned in the Bible??" The answer is "YES!" In the Old Testament, there are detailed descriptions from the LORD, to Moses, about what the Israelites are to bring as an offering for the Tabernacle. Exodus 25:5 says, "These are the offerings you are to receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair; ram skins dyed red and hides of sea cows;..." I am thankful that these magnificent mammals, known as "sea cows" or manatees, were around in the ancient days, and are still here today! Likewise, I am extremely thankful that I had this opportunity to see them up close and personal, as it gave me "MILES OF SMILES!" Tricia