Swimming with Manatees in Florida

It’s 4 a.m. when my phone jingles, but I know not where I am. The one-inch slit in the curtains proves what I suspected: It’s dark as pitch outside. Five hours of slumber just wasn’t enough. Then I remember: I must get up. Manatees! This morning we’re swimming with manatees and I’m in the land of Mickey Mouse and endless orange groves.

That did it. I got up. Phrases like “once in a lifetime opportunity” and “you’ll be the envy of your friends” flash across the screen in my murky mind. Somehow I reach the lobby fully clothed, with my canvas bag of necessities, and crawl to my morning savior, the coffee. Others from our group wander in. We’re a blurry-eyed, unkept bunch. Who can really look presentable at 5 a.m.?

Twenty minutes later we arrive at the dive shop in Crystal River, Florida and don our super-tight, neck-choking wet suits. It’s just one challenge after another this morning … all in the name of true adventure. About 30 of us crowd around to watch the mandatory orientation video before boarding our pontoon-style boats for the breezy ride to the river. Our vessel holds 14 and the single box of doughnuts won’t last long, so I muse.

Chilly! The air temp is only 52 degrees in January, but our guide assures us the water temperature is a constant 72 degrees this time of year. There’s some consolation in that, or maybe he’s just making it up. Regardless, I’ve gotten this far, I’m going in the water whatever the temperature. The sky is finally lightening as we putter along the channel; at least it’s not raining. Manatees to the left, manatees to the right, we race to the front of the boat for our first glimpse and the excitement builds.

We arrive and drop anchor. I was not the first in the water, more like third or fourth. Even so, I feel courageous, since several others chicken out at the last minute. Mistake for them! Our guide, already in the water, leads us forward a bit.

The rules say you must let the creatures come to you, when swimming with manatees. No following, no chasing, no threatening movements of any kind … only light scratching under their arm pits, or should I say fin pits, if and when they approach. Within five minutes of stepping into the water, I was tickling a manatee in the wild! Their rather goofy expressions and slow movements are endearing. I presume the rules prohibit hugging.

The complete silence, blue-greenish water and extra-large animal bobbing before me take on an otherworldly quality. For many years I have had a picture of a manatee and her baby on my office wall, and now here I am, floating face to face with the real thing. I’m overwhelmed.

Our guide and four others swim on, but I stay back to be closer to the ladder. Thanks to the buoyancy of the wet suit, I float on the top of the water and watch the creatures move around me. Lost in the moment, I remain still and calm as one manatee gracefully swims under me. I view him close-up from his head to his tail in slow motion. His wide back has scars, no doubt from a bad encounter with a boat propeller. How fortunate he is to be alive – how fortunate for me to be able to go swimming with manatees.

No question, this was worth an early start and a few goose bumps. I return to the ladder to rest and catch my breath. I try to get out, but the air is still icy cold and someone says the doughnuts are gone. So it’s back to the water for me.

Another similar boat pulls next to us, and soon a smallish manatee begins nibbling on algae clinging to their anchor line. From only four feet away, I watch him, with my head barely under the surface. Set on his task, he stays at least 20 minutes, oblivious to the movements around him. Clearly, the sight of humans no longer has any impact on him. He’s preoccupied with his delectable green slime, and I’m happy because I can watch him and still cling to the boat ladder.

After two hours at the site, we finish our frolicking and cruise back to the dock, damp and hungry, but content with our experiences. In hindsight, I quickly forget the early hour and the cold, remembering only the wonder.

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