Thought to be the creatures on which ancient legends of enchanting sirens were based, Florida’s gentle manatees may not win any beauty contests, but they’re still pretty darn hard to resist.
Shivering in my neoprene wetsuit, I’m huddled in the corner of a pontoon boat that’s slowly making its way across the placid waters of central Florida’s Kings Bay. As the first hints of dawn begin coloring the eastern sky on this January morning, the thermometer is hovering just above the freezing mark, an unpleasant surprise that’s caught me woefully underdressed and left me none too happy.
As I gratefully accept a steaming cup of cocoa from our captain, Bill “Bird” Oestreich, I try to take comfort in his assurances that there is a definite upside to this unforeseen cold snap. Namely that these frigid overnight temperatures create optimal conditions for what I will soon come to think of as one of the world’s most remarkable wildlife encounters.
In From The Cold
I have come to Crystal River, Fla., to meet the endangered West Indian manatee on its own turf. While manatees can be found as far north as South Carolina during the summer, the protected waters of 640-acre Kings Bay just offshore are home to the world’s largest concentration of these gentle marine mammals from November through March.
Though the manatees spend their days alone peacefully grazing on underwater vegetation, they quickly overcome their solitary nature once the winter sun begins to set. Each night, hundreds of manatees — which, despite their blubbery appearance, can be killed by prolonged exposure to water temperatures below 68 degrees — come together to take refuge in the comparatively warm 72-degree waters that flow from Kings Bay’s dozens of freshwater springs.
Add the fact that this is the only place in the U.S. where we humans are allowed to swim alongside manatees, and you’ll begin to understand what makes this charming Old Florida town so special.
My family and I started our adventure before sunup at Bird’s Underwater, the Oestreich family’s dockside dive shop and manatee tour operation.
After watching a short video that laid out the do’s-and-don’ts of interacting with these whiskered beasts, we wriggled into our rented wetsuits and got kitted out with masks, snorkels and fins. To say the mood of our group was subdued as we trundled out to the boat — whether because of the early hour, the nippy temperatures or a little of both — would be an understatement.
As we motored out into the bay, our outlook began to brighten as the first rays of the sun turned the mists rising off the water into a golden curtain that magically parted as we approached. Not long after he’d finished plying us with hot coffee, cocoa and donuts, Oestreich cut the engine and quietly eased the anchor over the bow near an imperceptible underwater vent known as King Spring.
Following his lead, I donned my mask and fins, slipped quietly into the water, and swam a good distance without seeing anything more exciting than a small school of fish. Just as I was about to give up and return to the boat though, I noticed two dark shapes approaching me out of the gloom.
Floating motionless on the surface with my heart pounding in my chest, I tried to control my breathing as I watched a mother manatee and her calf slowly come into view. And here’s where things got really interesting.
Though they could have easily escaped to the safety of the nearby roped-off manatee sanctuary where we humans were forbidden to follow, the pair continued swimming toward me until we were quite literally face-to-face.
Though it’s hard to say precisely when, it was somewhere in this first encounter that my mind was completely blown by a rather remarkable realization. Unlike most wild creatures that are inclined to turn tail and flee at the sight of humans, these two manatees honestly seemed as eager to meet me as I was to meet them.
Scratch That Itch
While I hated to leave my two new friends, Oestreich eventually rounded up our group with the promise of another site that — hard as it seemed to believe — would top what we’d just experienced.
After slowly cruising up a man-made canal lined on one side with modest houses, he switched off the motor and gently lowered the anchor at another nondescript spot flanked by a wall of trees. Though this certainly didn’t look any more promising than our last location, we once again slipped into the water and followed our guide several boat lengths farther up the channel.
With the sun now higher in the sky, visibility here was much improved. It wasn’t long before we were greeted by several large adult manatees, all of whom seemed to be genuinely curious about these peculiar creatures in their midst.
If I had any lingering doubt that manatees were more than just dumb animals, it was completely erased by what happened next. As I was tentatively rubbing the flanks of the biggest male in the group, he reached out with his forelimb and gently moved my hand to a spot on his rough moss-covered hide where he apparently had an itch that needed to be scratched.
After having this same experience with three different manatees, I became convinced these were genuinely symbiotic interactions rather than just mere coincidences. Needless to say, in each case I was more than happy to oblige.
Super, Natural Magic
With my back-scratching duties complete, Oestreich once again gathered our group together and pointed to the narrow mouth of a nearby creek we’d completely overlooked. It was the entrance to a spring complex known as Three Sisters.
While the underwater visibility at our first two snorkeling sites was good, nothing could have prepared me for what was waiting at the end of that short tree-shaded channel. As I emerged from the darkness into the first of the three sunlit springs, I was greeted by a brilliantly white sandy bottom and water as clear as any swimming pool, not to mention the half-dozen manatees resting like huge logs on the bottom 20 feet below.
Compared to our previous stops, the time we spent here had a distinctly dreamlike quality to it, as if we’d been dropped into an enormous man-made fish tank at some theme park. The difference, of course, is that here in this hidden Florida kingdom, the magic we were experiencing was the real deal.
More Than Just A Pretty Face
For animals that can grow to the size of a small car, the manatees I met in Kings Bay were remarkably gentle. While there’s no record of a human ever being injured by a manatee, unfortunately the opposite is all too common, as evidenced by the deep scars from boat propellers on the backs of virtually every manatee we encountered.
The manatees of Kings Bay are also exceptionally graceful for their size. Watching them effortlessly perform slow-motion barrel rolls underwater made me feel as clumsy as a 4-year-old thrashing about in water wings.
While both these impressions remain vivid months later, the most profound and lasting memory I brought home with me was the feeling that I’d been in the presence of truly sentient beings. If that conclusion seems like a bit of a stretch, I challenge anyone to spend time looking into the eyes of these highly intelligent creatures and then try to argue otherwise.
Warm and Fuzzy
By the time we were back on dry land, the mid-morning sun had chased away the chill and a gentle breeze was blowing in off the bay. As my family walked out of the Bird’s Underwater shop with armloads of manatee-related memorabilia (what can I say, I’m a softie), my wife asked me if I’d had fun. My answer was simple: Meeting the manatees of Kings Bay was an adventure that, in hindsight, was worth every bit of shivering.
Crystal River, Fla., is located about an hour southwest of Ocala. There are a number of RV parks nearby but, as with all Florida destinations during the winter months, it’s a smart idea to make reservations as far ahead as possible.
Bird’s Underwater (800-771-2763, www.birdsunderwater.com) offers manatee tours year-round, but winter months offer the best chances of having an up-close-and-personal manatee encounter. Likewise, though Bird’s does offer trips later in the morning, their pre-dawn departures offer the best chance of catching the local manatees before they move out into the bay to feed. Midweek trips (Tuesday-Thursday) also minimize the number of other boats on the water, thereby increasing the amount of quality time you’re likely to get.
Finally, hopefully I don’t need to tell you to dress more warmly than you think you have to. Also, if you’ve never snorkeled before, you can increase your comfort level by stopping by Bird’s Underwater the afternoon before your tour to pick up your mask, snorkel and fins so you can practice in the RV park’s pool.