By Karen Thompson
Features Reporter
July 4, 2021

Photos courtesy of Kathy Russell
Original Post January 8, 2018 1:26 p.m.

Editor’s Note:  The Fernandina Observer staff is taking a 3-day weekend break during July 4th   We will return on Tuesday,  July 6.  For your weekend entertainment, we are re-posting a few articles from the past.   We wish you all an enjoyable weekend.


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.

Up close and personal! Photo courtesy of Kathy Russell

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.

Local residents board boat to swim with the manatees at Crystal River.

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.

Manatee photo courtesy of Kathy Russell.

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 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.

Manatee photo courtesy of Kathy Russell.

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.”





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Margo Story
Margo Story (@guest_61498)
1 year ago

Mike is my neighbor….. I love hearing about all the dives he has taken.

Peggie Weeks
Peggie Weeks (@guest_61499)
1 year ago

Oh what a fond memory! This was a magical experience, one I’ll never forget. Thank you, dear Karen Thompson ~

Mark Tomes
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 year ago

A great story. My checkout (final exam) dive in a high school dive class in the mid 1970’s was at Crystal River, too, before it was a preserve. Lots of manatees, and giant garfish, too. Really crystal clear water. Now we have a manatee die-off – over 700 manatees (more than 10% of the entire population) have died so far this year, many just south of us in the Indian River. Besides the usual boat collisions and diseases, the main culprit is algae blooms that are killing the sea grass, the primary source of food for manatees. Agricultural runoff is a major cause of algae blooms. What we eat and how it is grown affects much more than just us. Buy and eat organic whenever you can, to help save these marvelous creatures, and many more besides (including ourselves!).

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