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March 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Snorkel with Manatees, Homosassa, Florida

“it’s like Disneyland in the water”

from the March, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

West Indian manatees surrounded me. They were waiting for me as I stepped down the pontoon boat's sturdy ladder to slip quietly into the water. I could have even done a belly flop and not scared them away. One, the size of a large couch, nudged me from the left, another lifted me from below, and a third swished his whiskers along the right side of my face. Behind them, others appeared to be waiting their turn to get close. What attracted them to me, a human snorkeler? Obviously, they were curious as to what I was doing in their space.

Manatee with Her Nursing CalfA bulbous male, his face covered with warts (a condition known as cold stress syndrome), nudged me. I gently petted him. This is the only place where interaction with manatees is permissible. The dive operator, Snorkel with Manatees, was emphatic about the rules: no chasing; no diving below the surface to reach them; "do not disturb" while they are sleeping; no riding; and certainly no touching below their bellies "where their girl and boy parts are," especially the males, who might get aroused.

The manatees have small eyes, relative to their walrus- size physiques (they're as long as 13 feet and weigh as much as 3,500 pounds) and puckered cupid-like lips, and they literally beg to be cuddled. Some will roll over hoping for a scratch. It's an incredible experience to be body-to-body with these amazing endangered mammals.

The 54-degree water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico during January had sent the manatees scurrying into the 72-degree freshwater springs near the two towns of Homosassa and Crystal River in Florida's Citrus County. Aquifers feed into the two nearby rivers, maintaining a constant year-round temperature. The abundance of manatees, which stirred the water, reduced visibility to 15 feet or less. But when a manatee is next to you, the only thing you don't see is other divers.

Snorkel with Manatees, Homosassa, FloridaHowever, by going in January, I paid a price. Weather delays (would you believe 12 hours?) in Atlanta and a late-night flight diversion from Tampa to Orlando were followed by a red-eye drive in pouring rain on the deserted, flooded Florida Turnpike. I arrived at the Hampton Inn in Crystal River at 4:30 a.m. -- and without my luggage, which had disappeared somewhere along the way in the bowels of Delta's checked-baggage transport system. It was 41 degrees outside, and I was scheduled to snorkel with manatees at 8 a.m. without my rashguard, 5-mil wetsuit, hood, socks and booties. Thankfully, I was able to rent a 3-mil wetsuit from Snorkel with Manatees and a prescription mask from another shop, American Pro Diving Center.

On the other hand, cold weather and water discourages casual snorkelers. More is not merrier, especially when operators welcome anyone over the age of three who will pay their price. When the Gulf is cold, sightings in these rivers and springs are pretty much guaranteed. In warmer weather, manatee sightings can be few and far between, and sometimes none at all. But with tens of thousands of tourists coming each year to Crystal River to snorkel with the manatees, I wanted an exclusive trip. After my third inquiry to the major operators, the disinterested reply sounded the same: "We leave at these times, it costs this much, and we take as many as 56 snorkelers." No thanks. I delved deeper into Google and found Snorkel with Manatees, which advertised a "maximum six-to-a-pontoon boat." I called owner Gene Parker, who recommended the Homosassa River, 17 miles to the south, which is only open for manatee snorkels from November to March. I booked two days, both the three-hour morning trips and the afternoon ones as well. When I shared my upcoming adventure with some of my longtime dive buddies at home, I got three "We're there" responses and one "maybe." So I called Gene again to ask if we could charter the boat for two days. No problem. It would be $400 for six hours daily, and at "whatever time you want it." I jumped at it, without realizing the probability of hypothermia when spending six hours in the cold water.

Snorkel with Manatees' Pontoon BoatFortunately, Homosassa had real action among the hundreds of manatees. From our pontoon boat, I observed a group mating. "Watch out for the sex orgy over there," Captain Laura warned my group. During their sexual state of arousal, they can unintentionally whack a snorkeler. I observed a mother nursing her pup, a mottled baby that was chewing the rope attached to our ladder. Mom, guarding her infant, waited patiently. Like all wildlife, manatees need to be respected -- don't get between a mother and her calf. Manatees are known to "blow snot" from their nostrils when surfacing. That can be nasty if you end up as a target.

Gene and his two captains, Erica and Laura, are fifth- and sixth-generation descendents in the area. Now in her midtwenties, enthusiastic Laura Wilds is recorded as the youngest, at age 16, to earn her Florida captain license (that record will hold because the state raised its minimum age requirement to 18). During our 25-minute motor from the dock at Plantation Resort to Homosassa Springs, Laura shared more about these fascinating mammals. Those covered with green algae had just arrived in the river from the Gulf. While manatees mate year round, females give birth every four to five years after a 14-month gestation period. Manatees surface to breathe every three to five minutes, perhaps 15 minutes when they are sleeping. Mainly grass feeders, they'll eat water hyacinths when they are available, plus small fish and shrimp.

Lacking predators, they have no fear of humans, but few, if any, have unscathed bodies. Thanks to boat engine propellers, their backs are a road map of scars. I saw one with an unhealed chunk of missing flesh. Another killer is seaweed. Approximately 300 around Tampa Bay died last fall because they had filled their bellies with the Gracilaria seaweed when sea grass, their food of choice, was killed by multiple large algae blooms. According to the Tampa Bay News, an aggressive red tide wiped out 47,000 acres of sea grass beds, which, according to one scientist, compared to losing an entire rainforest.

I stayed at Crystal River's new Hampton Inn on Highway 19, the only place that responded to my request for a quiet room. While the view was lacking, the room was very nice, with a desk, two queen beds, a large bathroom, refrigerator and microwave. The property has Wi-Fi, a pool, gym and a complimentary breakfast. While I quickly tired of paper plates and spongy eggs, waffle lovers would be in heaven. The wonderful staff was on a daily lookout for my luggage, which took four days to arrive, even after I pressed Delta hard by phone (I was put on hold for as long as two hours). In fact, I received a call from Disney World in Orlando to inform me they had one of my two bags. Go figure.

Snorkel with Manatees, Homosassa, FloridaMy buddies chose to stay at the Riverside Resort, basically a two-story motel, in Homosassa, which was certainly convenient because our boat docked there. Another option is the more upscale Plantation Resort along the Crystal River. It offers a spa, swimming pool, two restaurants, kayak and boat rentals, tennis and cave diving. It operates its own dive shop. More expensive than most large-scale operators at $55 per dive, it is the only shop to offer 5-mil wetsuits. It is also conveniently located five minutes from the manatees at Crystal River's King Springs. Three-hour tours are offered between 7:30 and 11 a.m. I talked to a mother and daughter who raved about their 12-person tour, "except for the twoyear- old and her angry mother who kept kicking me in the face."

For many people, one day of snorkeling might be enough. For me, two was perfect, topped off by the incredible birdlife along the way: frigates, herons, cormorants, white pelicans, blue heron, wood storks, egrets, anhingas, fish crows that "kee" rather than caw, eagles and osprey. Great fishermen, it's not uncommon to see an osprey flying low with a fish in its talons. That's so that the bald eagle, a less-savvy angler, doesn't try to steal the prey.

Despite my Delta flight and baggage delays, I would rank this experience second to snorkeling with the whale sharks and giant mantas at Holbox, Mexico, which I wrote about for Undercurrent in 2004. As Captain Laura so aptly put it, "Crystal River is like Disneyland in the water."

-- N.M.

Snorkel with Manatees, Homosassa, FloridaDivers Compass: The Crystal River/Homosassa area is about 60 miles from Tampa and 90 miles from Orlando . . . The routine at most dive shops is to check in, try on the wetsuit included in the tour, watch a video, sign the liability waiver and listen to the rules; most tours last approximately three hours . . . Florida Fish and Wildlife has the authority to shut down Crystal River snorkeling operations when there are too many boaters or too many manatees . . . There are plenty of other activities: eco-tours, kayaking, birding, dolphin trips, scalloping (seasonal) and boat rentals . . . I recommend a tour of David Levy Yullee's 5,100-acre sugar mill, the site of Florida's only Civil War action; the Yankees destroyed his mill and plantation, and today, the island is covered with cedar, palm, oak and hammock . . . I took two extra days to fish with Captain William Toney, one of the best guides I've ever had . . . Websites: Snorkel with Manatees - www.snorkelwithmanatees.com ; Captain Toney - www.homosassainshorefishing.com

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