We all had our wetsuits on and were craning our necks over the side of the boat looking for the creatures we were all here to see – the endangered West Indian Manatee that make their home here. We were loaded onto the dive boat cruising along the Crystal River in Central Florida. I was conducting my Divemaster training with American Pro Diving and was helping their staff with the guided manatee tour for a girl scout troop visiting from North Carolina. Even though I was on staff that day, I was just as excited as the girls about being able to get in the water and play with these strange and playful creatures. The captain moved the pontoon boat carefully along the river. Manatees are a common sight in all parts of the river, especially during the winter months when they come in from the ocean to the relatively warm water of the Crystal River. Because it is spring-fed, the river stays a consistent 72 degrees year round.
Earlier, back at the American Pro Diving store we were briefed on what to expect during this trip and watched a video outlining the rules for interacting with the gentle and protected animals. We are allowed to approach them, touch them (they like to be scratched under their chin especially) but not to grab or hold them if they decided they wanted to submerge and end the encounter.
We learned that manatees are amazing creatures. They are mammals that feed off aquatic plants that are found among the many rivers and tributaries in coastal Florida. In fact they eat these plants in huge quantities – up to 100 pounds a day. Manatees have huge lungs that they use to control their buoyancy in the water and allow them to stay underwater for up to 20 minutes. As divers we could learn a thing or two about buoyancy from these creatures. In fact they sleep underwater and surface while sleeping in order to breathe. They have a huge, paddle-shaped tail that they use to propel them forward.
As the boat made its way long the river we were told to look over the port side of the boat where the captain pointed out the tell-tale circles in the water indicating that a manatee was below. We passed that manatee by and several others until we came to an area that seemed to satisfy the captain, and we anchored there. I was first in the water since it was my job to dive down and set the anchor on a firm spot on the bottom. One by one the group got in the water – carefully so as to not splash and scare away any nearby manatees.
At first I could only see signs of one manatee in the distance, but our captain had keener eyes than I, and soon he was pointing out a number of the floating gray animals and encouraging us to approach them. Their wrinkled faces are happy looking and with their whiskers they look like a walrus without the tusks (they are actually most closely related to elephants). As you get near a manatee you can’t help but be happy. Their soft and innocent faces beg for our attention. Their skin is rough and their bodies are soft. They seem weightless in the water, although the adults weigh an average of 1,000 pounds! Some bore the scars of encounters with boat propellers – a common hazard. Most are in no hurry to get away from us as we pet and play with them. We see a mother who proudly shows off her calf to us. We don’t get tired of hearing the words from the captain, “there’s another manatee over here, approach slowly.”
Back on the boat and enjoying some hot chocolate, we talked excitedly about how much fun it was to play with these expressive creatures and how they seemed to enjoy the encounters as much as we did. As the boat pulled to the dock and I helped the passengers with their gear, I began to prepare for my afternoon trip assisting a group of divers on a drift dive down the nearby Rainbow River. Not a bad way to spend the day.