Our alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. Ayrril and I got up, started the coffee brewing, and began quietly preparing the bus for the road – unplugging from the campground electrical hookup, folding up our bed, stowing any loose items. At 4 a.m. I started the bus, removed the leveling blocks, and got ready to move out. Skipping out on a bill, you might think? Running from the law? Trying to avoid more “full-timer” tips from overly solicitous neighbors? All good guesses, but no. Despite temperatures in the 30s, we were setting off for a 6:15 rendezvous to snorkel with manatees in Crystal River.
Way back when we were planning this trip and talking with friends about our plans, we had a fuzzy idea of our route and what we’d like to do in our year on the road. When I mentioned heading for Key West in the winter, my friend Will said without hesitation, “You’ve got to swim with the manatees!” He gave me the basic details, I mentioned it to Ayrril, and then I tucked it away under the “Possibilities” section of my very cluttered mind. As we got closer to Florida, it came up again and we decided that it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Manatees, sometimes referred to as sea cows (although not to their cute pudgy faces), need warm water to survive. During the summer months, the water in the Gulf of Mexico is perfect but in the winter, things cool off pretty rapidly. Fortunately for them, Crystal River is fed by naturally warm freshwater springs that keep the water at a near constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit. This provides a natural haven for the manatees and a perfect opportunity to see these amazing creatures up close. March and a cold snap combined? Perfect. And while snorkeling tours to the springs go on all day, the early morning trip would get us there before a lot of other swimmers and manatees stirred up the water too much to see anything clearly.
The first order of business at River Ventures, our chosen tour company, was a thorough briefing on manatee encounter rules and regulations, all specifically designed to ensure that these endangered animals are not disturbed or harmed in any way. Next came wet suits and a short ride to the dock, where we met our boat captain, swim guide, and on board wildlife biologist Mike Birns. He is a founding member and president of the board of the Manatee EcoTourism Association. As we soon discovered, he’s also a fantastic guide! On the short boat ride to the springs, Mike briefed us all again on protocols for the swim – in short, interaction is allowed only at the surface of the water, only upon being approached by a manatee (no pursuit), touching only with one open hand, and don’t cross into the roped off area.
As soon as we dropped anchor, a young manatee approached the boat and began playing around the anchor line. Mike slipped into the water, eased away from the boat, and then it was our turn. Ayrril went first and almost immediately was approached by the young manatee calf for a snout-to-mask “kiss.” It’s hard to adequately convey how cool it was or how curious and playful the manatees are. You’re not swimming “near” them, you’re not just observing them from a distance while they carry on obliviously with their own lives; you are actually swimming with them. Everyone found themselves at one point or another virtually surrounded by manatees, both big and small, rolling over to be scratched on their bellies, grabbing you with their flippers, or coming close to look you in the eyes. One very small calf was fascinated with Bridger, swimming under and around him for a long time. It was incredible! Now we understand why it was included in the book “1000 Things to Do Before You Die” and why thousands of people come from all over the world to swim and kayak in these waters.
When it was time to go, we climbed out of the warm spring water into the incredibly cold spring air. Mike’s seemingly endless supply of hot chocolate was barely able to stave off hypothermia as we toweled off, added layers, and headed back to the dock. Fortunately we had parked our home right next to the shop, so warm dry clothes and a propane furnace were quickly in sight.
What a great experience! It was simply amazing.