Focus on the Earth: Manatee Manners Matter


Every year, when the ocean temperature falls below 68 degrees fahrenheit, the manatees migrate to the inland waterways of Florida, many to the Crystal River estuaries in Florida.  There, amidst the many springs that constantly emit millions of gallons a day of fresh water, where the water temperature does not fall below 70 degrees F, the manatees rest for the winter until the ocean warms up again around April.  Without these warm sanctuaries, the manatees would not live through the winter.  After the ocean warms, they leave the clear spring waters and spend the rest of the year wherever they want, including in Kings Bay.  The entirety of Kings Bay is a federally protected manatee sanctuary surrounded by residences with lawns right up to the water’s edge, and boat traffic is strictly regulated.

The photos that we see of snorkelers hovering with manatees in crystal clear waters are taken at the springs locations.  But after the water has warmed and the manatees have left the springs, the manatees are only found in the waters of Kings Bay.  The visibility in Kings Bay is minimal—during my snorkeling excursion, about three feet.  To my surprise, snorkeling in Kings Bay is very similar to diving in a Minnesota inland lake—lots of algae of various types and green, cloudy water.  The challenge is to see a manatee, assuming you are ever close enough to see anything other than algae.  The water is cold.  Children whose parents have brought them for the experience scream and cry.

The common theme of every scary movie I have ever seen is that you know something is out there, you know it’s coming, and by the time you see it, it is too late.  Looking for your first manatee in cold, cloudy, shallow water is a little like that.  You are looking for an animal that can be 15 feet long and weigh 1,500 pounds—all muscle and bone, not blubber as you might think from looking at them.  After the mandatory educational indoctrination about how you cannot touch, chase, or encroach on the manatees in any way, the excursion company outfits you in buoyant neoprene suits, masks, and snorkels (no fins), then puts you in the water with a mandatory floaty “noodle,” and tells you to dog paddle slowly over to the manatees, which are “right there.”  And so you float like a cork in just a few feet of water, barely able to navigate, with your masked face in the water, peering into the suspended globs of gossamer algae, with floating bits of grass sticking under your nose, trying to see the manatee before it sees you, partially trying to obey the rules and partially anxious about what the encounter will actually be like.

For me, I saw the color of the algae change under me and peered ever more intently, trying to determine whether what I was seeing was the bulk of a manatee or just the sun shining through the water more brightly as the clouds moved around the sky.  I didn’t want to hurt or bother any  manatee, but the primeval part of me really wanted to see it before it saw me.  Too bad for me.  While I was so intently looking at the patch of suspended algae, something bumped me on my side.  I was a little annoyed that another snorkeler was unconscious of my personal space and looked to the side to see who was there and how to get away.  To my surprise, I looked directly into the face of a little manatee who continued to bump me and nibble at my neck.  My anxiety had been irrelevant.  The rules I was supposed to follow were impossible.  I squeaked a little, and then I started talking through my snorkel (also against the rules).  I said hello.  I said “I’m so excited to see you.”  I thanked the manatee for bumping into me.  I considered whether to use my hand to push away from it (also against the rules).  I took a couple photos.  All this in maybe five seconds.  And then it was gone.

Later, I encountered a couple more big manatees.  As initially feared, they appeared out of the gloam, rising to within inches of my body.  I could hear them chomping away on the grasses growing from the bottom, careless that I was so close, and disappearing into the cloudy water as quickly as they appeared.  Eventually, after my fingers were so cold that I could no longer feel the tips, our time together was up, and I returned to my life on land.  I’m still not certain I could return to their realm without a little trepidation.  That said, I love them now just a bit more than I did before.

When I first learned about manatees, they were Endangered, and visiting them in the Crystal River was very restricted and required permission granted years in advance.  Now, after years of careful protections, they have moved up a rung to Vulnerable, and encounters with them are easy to procure.  Their survival is not assured, but there is hope.