When swimming with manatees, mind the herd

Endangered sea cows hang out in Florida’s Crystal River; tourists can visit conscientiously

Manatee near Crystal River, Fla.

MAKE WAY  Tourists can visit sea cows in Crystal River, Fla., but they’ll need to mind their manatee manners.

Keith Ramos/USFWS

The creature emerged from the murky depths of Florida’s Crystal River just a couple of feet below where I was floating. I froze and felt my eyes widen. I wanted to shout “manatee!” but knew that would scare the animal. And that was the last thing I wanted to do.

Before I even dipped a toe in the water, I had been drilled about the rules of passive observation. “You have to be really quiet,” said Yves Delpech of Sunshine River Tours. And don’t touch the manatees; “let them touch you,” he said. Manatees, it appears, are the introverts of the sea.

There are strict rules for interacting with the animals because the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is endangered, numbering just 6,000 or so (SN Online: 4/15/15). Boat speeds are restricted — manatees have been killed in boat strikes, and many survivors bear pale scars from interactions with propellers. Disturbing a manatee in almost any way is prohibited by state and federal law.

MANATEE PARTY The endangered marine mammals congregate in large numbers despite tourist visits. But humans should give manatees some peace and quiet. Carol Grant/USFWS Endangered Species/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

But in Crystal River and Kings Bay, north of Tampa on the Gulf Coast, swimming with manatees is legal. Hundreds of manatees hide out there in winter, drawn by warm waters bubbling up from springs. About 50 or 60 manatees don’t bother to leave when warm weather arrives. Their presence draws thousands of tourists to swim with the gentle behemoths. And there are many companies willing to fulfill those desires.

In my half day on the water, I saw why the choice of company matters. Even though I visited during the off-season, some tour boats were crowded with swimmers who may easily have overwhelmed the animals. I saw tourists who rented their own boats and just jumped into the water, letting kids splash around and probably scaring any manatees they managed to find. I understood why some conservation groups have lobbied to ban swimming with the animals.

But Sunshine River Tours impressed me with its efforts to educate about the animals and how to keep them safe. Delpech even helped another boat of tourists with proper manatee etiquette.

We learned several ways to spot the animals from the surface, including sighting circular patterns in the water where a tail or head had emerged and looking for the bubbles of manatee farts.

Our group had several manatee encounters. We saw a mother and calf, and we spied adults playing at the surface. A couple of manatees even brushed by me, letting me feel their rough hides, slickened with algae.

The Florida manatee’s numbers are concerning but have increased from a low of 1,267 when surveys began in 1991. In warm months, manatees occasionally wander as far north as Massachusetts. But for an intimate encounter, a carefully chosen tour in Crystal River is a good bet.

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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