By Karen Thompson
Photos courtesy of Kathy Russell
January 8, 2018 1:26 p.m.
Last week as snow, ice and wind chill advisories kept most people homebound, 16 hearty locals set off from the Atlantic Rec Center to swim with the manatees in Crystal River.
All participants agreed that the 5 a.m. wakeup call and three hour drive to Florida’s Gulf Coast was well worth the trip. Our first stop was the dive shop where we watched a Fish and Wildlife Service video on the do’s and don’ts of manatee play etiquette. Wetsuits, snorkels, masks, fins and floatation noodles were distributed to us eager adventurers. If you’ve never tried to get into a wetsuit, you can’t imagine how they feel ….kind of like a giant girdle but not exactly figure-flattering.
We boarded a pontoon boat at the marina and set out to find the cove with the most manatees. One-by-one we entered the water, which felt warm at a balmy 73 degrees and compared to the rain and 45 degree air temperature. Our guides Mike and Dean were with us the entire trip driving the boat, helping us into the water, taking underwater video, serving hot chocolate and giving us confidence that we weren’t crazy to be recreating on a day when most were at home curled up with a good book.
Hundreds of manatees and us humans hid from frigid temperatures by huddling in a sanctuary at the entrance to Three Sisters Spring. Manatees appear bulky and fat but actually have a very thin blubber layer that doesn’t do much to protect them from hypothermia. Hence, the recent cold snap affects the waterways the sea cows call home and sends them swimming for cover.
Three Sisters Spring, part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, is one of the most famous seasonal manatee aggregations. The federal government has regulations that protect the “threatened” manatees from boats and under-educated swimmers. Ropes and floats mark off-limits areas. These marine mammals were removed from the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “endangered” list in 2016. Today’s census is 6,000.
Manatees are herbivores that forage most of the day and have an elongated hindgut that takes up most of its body cavity space. These gentle giants are grayish in color and have thick, wrinkled skin much like their closest relative the elephant. Their front flippers help steer and their powerful, flat tails propel them through the water. Despite small eyes and a lack of outer ears, manatees are thought to see and hear quite well.
These amazing creatures are friendly, gentle and graceful. They body surfed, barrel rolled and squealed when playing with us. They seemed to like getting up close to look at us wet-suit clad swimmers.
Manatees weigh between 1,500 and 1,800 pounds and are 10-12 feet long. They live for 50-60 years in the wild. Babies (calves) are born weighing 60-70 pounds and 3-4 feet long. They mate all year long, carry their babies for a full year and have just one calf at a time.
The Atlantic Rec Center has scheduled another trip to Crystal River to swim with the manatees Sunday, Feb. 18. Contact Kathy Russell at the rec center 904/627-8303 or [email protected] My advice, bring lots of gear including two sets of warm clothes, two towels, plastic or dry bag for boat, water shoes if you have them, snacks and water. We stopped on the way home for a late lunch.
Don’t miss this spectacular experience. The warmer the weather gets, the less manatees there will be, so make your plans now. As my friend Peggie Weeks said, “It’s an amazing experience. Do it if you can. You will never forget it.”
Editor’s Note: Karen moved to Fernandina Beach eight years ago after working in Chicago as a senior public relations specialist for the Midwestern regional office of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. Prior to that, she was an editor, columnist and writer for a chain of Chicago newspapers , an account executive for several Chicago public relations agencies and proprietor of her own pr/marketing business. She grew up and earned her journalism degree in Wisconsin.