Swimming With The Manatees

Swimming with the manateesAnybody can go swimming with those sleek and graceful, intelligent and fun loving, gentle and friendly, and beautiful dolphins at Sea World or Disney Land, if you've willing to part with some big bucks or go in debt for a few years. As a part of our Orlando vacation, we decided to try something a little different during our adventure packed seven day vacation in Orlando - why not go snorkeling with the large and sluggish, lethargic and pug nosed, gentle and endangered manatees!

Compared to dolphins, manatees are not quite as intelligent or good looking, put we could swim with them in the natural environment and not spend our life savings.

Our research said that Fun 2 Dive Scuba and Capt. Joe was the best for this eco tour and adventure and the best place to swim with the manatees is the Crystal River, a clear cool spring feed river, on the west coast of Florida about 90 miles west of Orlando. So we loaded the car with coffee and junk breakfast food and headed out to Crystal River to meet Capt. Joe at the marina.

House on Crystal River on the way to swim with the manateeCapt. Joe greeted us and handed out our wetsuits and for what seemed like the next half hour I worked at stuffing this old pudgy body into that tight black wet suit that I think was built for a very skinny wet suit swim model! Capt. Joe kept insisting that it was my size and to keep trying to squeeze my body parts into it. With some help, I was finally stuffed in the wet suit and ready to go. Wow, that is a workout! However, for the next twenty minutes I had a hard time breathing and was sure that the wet suit was slowly squeezing the life out of me.

Ready to go with Capt Joe on his boatAfter a couple of instructions and rules from Capt. Joe (don't chase the manatees and don't pee in the wet suits) we were heading up the Crystal River in search of manatees. During our short 25 minute scenic ride toward the mouth of the Crystal river, Capt. Joe parted with some local history and interesting information about the area and the manatees. We arrived at a site with at least 30 manatee lounging around in about 5 feet of cool crystal clear water. We couldn't wait to don our masks and snorkels and join them before they got spooked and swam away.

For the next hour and a half we swam with and among over 40 manatee of all shapes and sizes. Most were snoozing or relaxing after a hard day of grazing for food and some were gracefully swimming around with no apparent destination in mind or rush to get there. The manatees don't seem bothered by all of us funny looking back suited skinny people with big eyes and a hose going out of their mouths. They'll swim right up to your face and give you a look of "you are weird and why are you here!" You can get up close and personal and the manatees just seem to ignore you and go about their business - which seems to be just laying on the bottom like they are sound asleep and then every so often gracefully moving 1000 pounds a little farther upstream or surfacing for a quick breath of air every 20 minutes or so. Wow what an experience.

swimming side by side by the manateeFace to face with a manatee in the Crystal RiverWhat's that strange looking thing in black?Where we were swimming there was a narrow inlet leading to a large perfectly clear spring feed pond surround by cypress trees and other fauna. We could observe the bubbling spring coming up from China or some unknown deep place in the earth. As we were swimming back down the inlet, which is about 3 feet wide, we came nose to google with two huge manatees trying to swim up to the pond to feed or take another nap. I tried to hug the side of the inlet to let him pass but he decided that there was no way he could get by my fat belly, so he put it in reverse and backed out. How in the world does a manatee swim backwards? Have you ever tried it? But he did it, maybe they aren't quite as dumb as they look. And these lumbering giants are very graceful swimmers.

Not only was it fun to snorkel in the clear water observing the fish and underwater features but coming face to face and inches away from the pug nose of a 1000 pound manatee was quite a unique experience. The manatee are an endangered species and they are very well protected, tagged, and watched. Before you enter the water, you are required to watch a video about the do's and don'ts when swimming with the manatees. If was sad to see that most of the manatee had several scars, some very recent, caused by boat propellers and other man made hazards. They are not the cutest mammals in the river, but their unique face and graceful moves tend to grow on you and we left wanting to know what we could do to contribute to protecting this endangered species for our grand kids to swim with.

There are several different types of manatee tours, what we liked about Capt. Joe was:

  • Manatee in Crystal Riverhis trip isn't an "all aboard, quickly get in the water, ok, time's up" trip with 50 other tourists crowed on a pontoon boat - he has a small boat and the trip isn't over until all of the guests say so. In fact, when we were ready to go, I think he was disappointed, didn't want to leave, and keep saying "are you sure you want to go? There are still manatee out there!"
  • his trip isn't a hurry up and get to the manatee, he takes you on a casual scenic cruise up the river and makes it interesting with his stories and tales
  • he is passionate about the manatee (you would think he raised them!) and makes his trip a quasi eco tour and he wants to make sure you enjoy the trip and the manatees as much as he does
  • and his prices are reasonable for what he is offering, which could be an all day experience, instead of a 20 minute swim with manatees which is what other tours offer

Capt. Joe actually lives on the other coast of Florida where he has a shop, boats, and offers scuba training, scuba charters, photo safaris, and more. Give them a call, 888 588-Dive, or send them an email. This is suitable for anybody that can swim or hold on to mommy or daddy. A memorable and unforgettable experience.

Swimming with the manatees was part of a fun filled 7 days in Orlando where we played golf on nine different courses, went sky diving, drove an Indy race car, flew a WWII fighter trainer, saw gators on an airboat ride, and more. Click on this link to read our Vacation in Orlando article.

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