Peace, Love & Manatees
There are some moments when you say......."I Can't Even Right Now"! You know the moments, when you are so floored by an experience that you wish and hope that it will never leave. We 'Couldn't Even' today as we swam - yes swam, with the MANATEES!
The 'manatee-experience' is tricky to write about, there were so many, 'you had to be there moments'. I'm going to do my best to verbally and visually entice you to put this on your bucket list!
Heck yeah, we were timid, dipping into unknown waters at 6am with the thought of 2,000 pound creatures lurking beneath is kinda scary. Thank goodness the wetsuits fit because after a month of eating our way around the east coast...well you get the visual.
Luckily we had a great team prepping us for manatee wildlife and leading us into the beautiful waters that is Crystal River. Captain Steve, a retired fiberoptic engineer and Scuba Robbie, a former US service man gone scuba, were more than we could ask for by way of leaders. Their knowledge of the area, the wildlife and the manatees was unending and it put our hesitancy at bay.
As luck would have it, any anxiety was shattered when Captain Steve came across a mama and baby feeding on the banks. Captain Steve said "This is a great sighting, you must have good karma. Lucky for us, baby wants to play". The baby followed our boat until we stopped and then went to chew on some river grass near the shoreline. Note: Manatees are sometimes called 'sea cows' because they are slow plant-eaters, peaceful and similar to own on land.
It was barely dawn, the sun was peaking through the trees - just enough to showcase the clear waters. One by one we slowly, and quietly entered the river and approached baby as she chowed-down. As funny as she was to watch, it was also magical. We became breathless as baby granted all 5 of us the privilege to float next to her. We quickly fell in love with what we agreed was the most gentle water creature we've come to know.
Watching in awe, we remembered, mama was nearby - that made some of us nervous....wandering baby means protective mama. Well, mama was near, but not concerned over baby, instead mama was very busy filling her own belly. (Note: Manatees eat 10% of their body weight a day...sooooo you do the math - lots of eating going on).
Manatees are gentle and curious, but you need to be mindful of their shyness. When in the water with manatees, you'll be keen to do the following: lightly dog-paddle your arms in front of you to propel forward, position your legs straight back and cross your feet. No splashing, no kicking - it scares the manatees. As taught by Scuba Robbie, always use your manatee manners and float like the sea cows. Our mantra quickly became: #belikeamanatee
Baby and mama were very interested in eating and not so much in us, so Robbie decided it was time to take us into 'The Three Sisters'.
Unbeknownst to us, Three Sisters Springs is a Wildlife Refuge located in the heart of Crystal River, FL. It's a grouping of three springs consisting of vents, sand boils and crystal clear spring water that help feed Kings Bay - the headwaters of the Crystal River. We just happen to be again, lucky enough, because 1. Three Sisters was open to snorkelers (apparently the wildlife rangers have the right to close it off if they feel the manatees need to 'be alone' and 2. we were the only snorkelers in the springs.
We learned the manatee season at Crystal River begins in mid-November and ends in late March. This is when the manatee sanctuaries go in effect. During the winter months, manatees come to the springs of Crystal River to conserve the energy necessary to survive the cold Gulf waters. (Note: Manatees are not fat, in fact they only have 5% body fat - they mainly consist of bone structure, making them very heavy and very cold in the chilly seasons.) We understood that because it's been warm, we may not see manatees because they are out in the bigger open waters. We were in Satellite Beach earlier this month and no manatees were to be found - too warm in the canals so they swam out to feed in the bay and the sea.
Back to Three Sisters....We followed Scuba Robbie, and he said, 'Don't be disappointed if you don't see any more Manatees, they move freely in and out of the springs as temperatures and tides change", so we were sure our sightings were over.
As we swam through Three Sisters we felt as if we were in the middle of a sea-themed disney movie. The waters crystal clear, the birds chirping, the quiet calm of the waters, the mossy trees dripping with beautiful blends of aqua and land life. As we were enjoying the scenery it was at that moment our guide signaled that a manatee was heading our way and to be still. We all froze and watched this magnificent (HUGE) beast glide right by us, out of the springs and into the river.
We continued deeper into the springs with the hope of more passerbys. When we reached the 'cove'; our mouths dropped, there were 10-15 manatees at the bottom resting, eating, chilling. We made our way into the middle and immediately up float two babies. With no inhibitions, they swam right up to us - into our personal space if you will. It was hilarious, they bumped into our faces with their noggins, twirled under us - nudging our hands for pats, rolled for belly rubs - we were freaking out! It was like out of nowhere unicorns appeared, it was so majestic.
We began to giggle into our snorkels - fear had no chance of survival here! The manatees were so playful, curious and in need of some serious belly rubs. One manatee followed our oldest around - we think it's because of his gentle nature the manatee sensed. Another baby barrel rolled for our second oldest - who is the family entertainer, so the showboating was in front of the appropriate audience. After a length of time communing with nature, it was time to leave. We were very sad to exit the springs, but we understood the importance of letting the manatees have their space and the babies their nap time.
Once back on the boat, our guide told us how lucky we were, that he has never seen such active manatees - babies coming up and communicating with all of us so quickly. It made our day, it made us happy - manatee happy. "You all have some good karma!", he said.
We are so grateful mother nature let us become one with the manatees today. We have a new found respect for all who protect these magnificent creatures and hope to educate others of the importance of preserving the springs and the manatee habitat.
When in Crystal River, Florida, we highly recommend swimming with the manatees. Bird's Underwater Adventure and Dive Center is the place to go - The staff is amazing and you can tell they care about the water's beautiful creatures around and within.