Take the plunge as season to swim with manatees grows short

CRYSTAL RIVER

Chilly weather soon will come to an end for the season, and so too will your chances to swim with the manatees. Whenever the water temperature drops in the Gulf of Mexico, manatees move to the warmer waters of the river's head springs. Over the years, the number of manatees and snorkelers who come to swim has increased. So last year the National Fish and Wildlife Service expanded the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to include all of Kings Bay and its tributaries from Nov. 15 to March 15. The new rules prohibit scuba diving and fishing in Three Sisters Springs, once a popular dive site during the winter months.

Gentle giants

Manatees spend about one-third of their day eating, one-third sleeping and one-third socializing with other manatees.

These animals have distinct personalities. Some like humans; others don't. Be aware of this in the water. If a manatee swims away, don't chase it.

Give the manatee some space. If one does approach and you feel the urge to pet it, resist, because it is a fine line that separates a stroke from a poke. And whatever you do, don't grab it or hold it.

Manatees share a common ancestry with the elephant and every day consume 10 to 15 percent of their body weight — which typically reaches about 1,000 pounds. So where there are aquatic plants, there are manatees.

Crystal River has plenty of vegetation to satisfy their hunger. So don't feed the manatees.

And while the little ones may be cute, don't try to separate a calf from its mother, or an individual from the herd.

Jump on in

Manatees don't mind water temperatures that would be chilly for most Floridians. Canadians, on the other hand, might find the 72 degree water in the springs refreshing,

But if you plan to spend any time in the water, wear a wet suit. Bring your own or rent one at one of the local dive shops. You'll be more comfortable — and more patient.

A standard mask and snorkel, available at most sporting goods stores for less than $50, is ideal.

Bring along a towel and some hot coffee or cocoa for after your swim, because even in a wet suit, you are still bound to get chilly.

But the rewards are worth the effort. When you first enter the water, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the size of these gentle giants.

Don't panic — they won't hurt you. Relax, float on the surface and enjoy the experience. The calmer you are the more likely a manatee might swim over.

On my recent excursion, one of the animals actually swam over and nuzzled my face mask, in what I hope was not a case of mistaken identity. The swim, or to use a better word "float," lasted about an hour, but it probably lowered my blood pressure by 10 points, which made it well worth the 90-minute drive.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com.

Ben Totz, 12, of Canadensis, Pa., watches Friday as a manatee swims close by at the Three Sisters springhead in Crystal River.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Ben Totz, 12, of Canadensis, Pa., watches Friday as a manatee swims close by at the Three Sisters springhead in Crystal River.

Behave yourself

The following acts are all prohibited under federal law:

• Chasing or pursuing manatees.

• Disturbing or touching manatees that are resting or feeding.

• Diving from the surface onto resting or feeding manatees.

• Cornering or surrounding manatees.

• Riding, holding, grabbing or pinching manatees.

• Poking, prodding or stabbing manatees with anything, including hands and feet.

• Standing on manatees.

• Separating a mother from its calf.

• Separating manatees from a group.

• Giving manatees anything to eat or drink.

If you go

The following companies specialize in manatee encounters:

American Pro Dive, Crystal River, (352) 563-0041.

Bird's Underwater, (352) 563-2763.

Crystal Lodge Dive Center, (352) 795-6798.

Crystal River Manatee Dive & Tour, (352) 795-3337.

Port Paradise Dive Center, (352) 795-3111.

Plantation Inn & Golf Resort Marina, (352) 795-5797.

For more information, call the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, (352) 563-2088, or go to www.fws.gov/crystalriver.

SOURCES: Save the Manatee Club, Florida Power & Light Co., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Take the plunge as season to swim with manatees grows short 02/20/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 21, 2011 7:35am]

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