Each winter, manatees gather around the relative warmth of springheads (a constant if chilly 72 degrees) to escape the Gulf of Mexico’s even colder temps. And while the animals are in their greatest numbers here during the winter months, you’ll also find them lolling about in the waters here come summertime, too – and with far fewer tourist crowds vying for their attention and affection.
It’s still dark out when I make the hour-and-a-half drive north of Orlando in the wee morning hours to the small town of Crystal River and Bird’s Underwater, the best dive shop in the area for reliable year-round manatee encounters. Scuba tanks aren’t involved - it’s all about snorkeling here. And the rule is never approach the animals but be prepared to be approached. If they initiate contact, says my guide, you’re free to reciprocate. And manatees, I’ll soon learn, are very social animals.
By 6:15 a.m. we are fitted with wetsuits and make the short boat ride across King’s Bay, the headwaters of Crystal River and gateway to Three Sisters Springs, home to the largest concentration of manatees in the world. The water is dead calm and an otherworldly turquoise. A thin veil of fog adds to the mystic-feeling of the setting.
I slip quietly into the water from the boat and realize what looks like logs a few feet below me are actually scores of sleeping manatees. Water leaks into my wetsuit as I slowly swim the few yards from the river into the crystalline spring head, willing the slumbering animals to rise and shine. But they seem oblivious to the humans in their midst.
Then I feel a slight nudge on my arm through my wetsuit. It’s a manatee initiating a nose-first nuzzle. Nearby, a mother rises from the sandy bottom as if she’s just been inflated and approaches with a baby in her shadow. Our mutual regards seem equally curious, but maybe I’m just imagining it. After all, manatees are used to human visitors here but for me it’s like an outer space encounter.
When the baby rolls over and exposes its belly for a rub I feel my eyes water and my masks starts to fog up. But I swear I can see its wrinkly face rippled with a grin as I make first contact.
Based in Florida, Terry Ward spends roughly half the year on the road. Her favorite travel destinations are Norway, France, Bali and Morocco. Her dream is to someday sail around the world.
MORE SUMMER TRAVEL QUESTS
36) Swim with a Manatee