Diving with the Manatees
Crystal River, Florida
February 16-18, 1996
Dive - Site..................Depth - Time
My latest diving trip was over President's Day weekend with the Atlanta Ski Club to Crystal River, Florida to dive with the Manatee in the warm springs there. With snow flurries falling in Atlanta, I collected my SCUBA gear and headed for warm, sunny Florida.
Unfortunately, Florida wasn't so warm either. Saturday morning, as we collected our gear the television was reporting 29 degrees in our area. Undaunted, we donned our wetsuits and drove over to the Plantation Inn Marina.
Today's trip was to be a snorkeling trip only. The Manatee, we were told, are frightened by the bubbles from regulators.
During the slow ride out to the Manatee area, all of us were eying the water dubiously. Our boat pilot was dressed in a fur parka and gloves and looked more as if he belonged in Alaska instead of Florida. Steam was rising from the water as we approached the area of the spring. I kept telling myself that the water was around 70 degrees but it took some mental effort to lower myself into the water.
After a few seconds it was obvious that the water was much warmer than the air. I relaxed and looked around. A group of snorkelers from another boat was clustered around something, so I kicked in their direction.
We had been told many times, both at the pre-trip meeting in Atlanta and during the pre-dive briefing that morning, that we were not guaranteed to see any Manatee. So, I was quite happy to discover that the other group had found one. I circled it at a slight distance along with the other swimmers. I guessed that it was around 6 feet long, and seemed to be simply floating along, ignoring the humans around it.
After watching the Manatee for a while I stuck my head above water in an attempt to locate my own group. I spotted them around twenty yards away, apparently clustered around a Manatee of their own. Ducking back below the surface, I turned to swim towards them and discovered that a second Manatee has swum up behind me and was only a few feet away.
There is something unnerving about having something that large come up behind you without knowing it was there. After a brief moment of startlement, the Manatee and I regarded each other for several seconds. Then, it moved slightly closer and turned to one side, allowing me to take its picture. It hung around for a brief time, then turned and leisurely swam away.
This was only the first of many encounters. Apparently the cold weather we had cursed was working to our advantage. Because of the cold, all of the Manatee were clustered around the spring. I was in the water for about an hour and probably saw 20 during that time, including two mothers with calves.
Needless to say, the boat ride back to the marina was freezing. The water was warm while we were in it but being wet on a boat in 30 degree weather is awful. I don't think that ice was forming on my wetsuit, but I'm not sure.
Because of the cold we decided not to do anymore diving that day. It never got much above 40. The next day, Sunday, was much better; temperatures were in the mid-60s. Most of our group had already left for home but I set out again, this time to the Port Paradise Dive Shop.
We returned to the spring again. It was much easier entering the water this time. There were also a lot more swimmers and divers in the water. I swam over to the spring and dove.
I noticed that there were a lot fewer Manatee around this time, either because the warmer weather let them range further for food or because the larger number of people in the area kept them back in their protected areas. Only two ever came very close to me; a mother and a calf.
The spring area is interesting. It is roughly a funnel shaped sinkhole about 35 feet deep with two large cave openings in one side from which the spring flows. The divemaster had suggested that I go inside but I declined. Instead, I admired the almost solid wall of silver fish which formed a curtain for the entrance. I also saw quite a few Tarpon in the 3-4 foot range and the occasional Manatee.
There is a plaque on the bottom of the spring with a carving of a Manatee. It was covered with algae and hard to read, but was dedicated to the Manatee and the hope that this would always be a place for them.
After a while, I discovered a problem with this as a diving site; it really isn't that big of an area. It is surrounded on three sides by a Manatee sanctuary (no admittance) and by a boat channel on the fourth. After about 15 minutes I had seen all there was to see in the area. I spent some time following a school of Tarpon about, then simply settled onto a ledge and watched an OW class going through their routines. When I went back to the boat I still had over half the air in my tank!
Overall, I still rate the trip very highly but I had the most fun Saturday just swimming with the Manatee. The dive was nice, but there really wasn't enough to hold my interest for long. I will probably take the trip again next year but will probably stick to snorkeling.
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