By Pat Foster-Turley
Bucko and I finally made it to Crystal River, long heralded as a great place to see manatees and the only place in Florida where you can pay to swim with them off a boat. I know a number of people who have gone there just to do this, and almost everyone reports a wonderful experience, up close and personal. We had no intention of boarding a boat to swim with them but we did want to watch the process.
For us, long-term Florida residents and biologists, it was appalling. Admittedly we are not the typical Florida residents. Fifty years ago we worked at Miami Seaquarium, where I was, among other things, the caretaker of Romeo and Juliet, two manatees in a small tank where they could not dive or even swim upright in the position required for breeding. I did the best I could do to make them happy, including scratching their backs with a brush, talking to them, and keeping them company but the tank was upsettingly small. They liked cut up apples as a treat, a fact that an early morning gardener secretly showed me. Amazingly, using bits of apples, he trained them both to rise out of the surface to give him “kisses.” I loved those manatees and hated their captivity in an unsuitable tank.
Amazingly Romeo and Juliet are still alive! Both are more than 60 years old and were put in captivity “pre-act” before the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972 and no laws specifically related to them. They had eventually been moved to a bigger tank, but, according to wildlife activists they were still held in unfavorable conditions, exposed to sun and, in Romeo’s case, social isolation to prevent any possible breeding with Juliet, who swam in another tank with a young female manatee companion. But their fortunes changed. In early Dec. 2023 they were finally moved to Zoo Tampa, where they are said to be adjusting well and socializing, at last, with others of their kind in the large manatee facility there.
Bucko and I have seen wild manatees many times here in Florida. As most people know, manatees head for the constant temperature freshwater springs when the sea gets too cold and you can reliably count on seeing them in a number of Florida State Parks during the winter months. A full list of good places to see manatees is provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. It is always fun to watch these giant mammals from a distance, noting their interactions with one another, their feeding behavior and their gentle demeanor. And, if you are lucky they might even approach you in your designated swimming area.
But, wow, Crystal River/Kings Bay in western Florida is an entirely different experience. Although “safe areas” are roped off to allow manatees a place to peacefully rest, most of the freshwater spring-fed Kings Bay is a tourist mecca. “Swim with the Manatee” programs are abundant. On a recent visit there Bucko and I watched scores of wet-suited tourists on tour boats entering the water when a manatee is spotted, then hovering on pool noodles above them. Every now and then a manatee would surface to breathe, sometimes nudging against the floater above, proving the thrill of a lifetime for the people but for the manatees not so much I think.
The rules for being around manatees are stressed to all participants. You cannot try to chase, touch, or harass them in any way. But with all the people in the water, sometimes they seem to approach people themselves. How can they not when groups of people are hovering in the water above them throughout most of Kings Bay? The scene was circus-like and nothing like the peaceful quiet of watching manatees in many other natural springs in Florida. Maybe the manatees were not disturbed by all the fuss, but Bucko and I were. To us the whole scene was disturbing, and another example of the end to the “Old Florida” we knew and loved.
If you want to see manatees, or even swim with them like these people did, you can find many opportunities with a quick Google search. For you, too, swimming with them might be the experience of a lifetime, so I don’t advise against it. But for Bucko and me, the chance to encounter of a wild manatee in a peaceful Florida spring is much more fulfilling. If you do intend to see manatees in a spring this winter, check out the relevant websites in the FWC brochure linked above and get there early to beat the hordes of people that will undoubtedly be there too.
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]