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Swimming with Manatees – Crystal River, Florida, U.S.A.

A Face-to-Face Encounter with Pseudo-Mythical Creatures

Gentle and endearingly playful, with puppy-dog faces attached to 2,000- pound potato-sack bodies that only their mothers could love, manatees (a.k.a. West Indian sea cows or Sirenia, “sirens”) were often mistaken for mermaids by ancient sailors—who presumably liked their mermaids plus-plus Rubenesque. Graceful and wonderfully charismatic, they’re known to nudge and nuzzle their snorkeling visitors, and in recent decades have become a major cause célèbre, with their status on the critically endangered list focusing worldwide attention on them as never before.

The U.S. population of some 3,000 mana­tees lives almost exclusively in the warm-water bays, estuaries, and rivers of Florida’s eastern and western coasts, wintering particularly in Citrus County, in the west-central part of the state. This is the only place in the world where you can have a face-to-face encounter with these gray-blue marine mammals. A number of outfitters in the small city of Crystal River equip visitors with snorkeling equipment (scuba div­ing is not permitted, nor is it necessary in these shallow waters) and provide a boat trip to nearby Kings Bay, where 100 to 250 of the area’s population of about 400 tend to be on hand.

 

Federal laws prohibit certain behavior: snorkelers cannot pursue the animals, for instance, but must wait for the manatees to approach on their own—which they almost always do.

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