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Snorkeling with Manatees: An Encounter with the Endangered

We eased into the 72-degree water of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge for a close-up swim with a few of the 2,600 manatees surviving in Florida.

Crystal River National Wildlife RefugeDrysuits were provided for us to combat the cool water, but the half-ton manatees were comfortable. In fact, they had come in from the open ocean to escape the winter storms that chill the water. Manatees can't survive long if the water temperature falls below 68 degrees.

Equipped with snorkels and fins, we paddled to the roped-off area of Magnolia Springs that marks a manatee sanctuary. As the name Crystal River implies, the water was quite clear, providing an awesome view of three large adult manatees and one baby, all at rest.

For the next half-hour we watched meditatively these huge, endangered mammals.

They rested on the bottom for three to four minutes, then floated to the top, sucked some oxygen, and sank again into somnolence. Though aware of our presence, they reacted minimally.

As gentle giants who eat only vegetation, such as sea grass and water hyacinth, they posed no threat to us. Occasionally an adult would venture out of the sanctuary and swim directly past us, almost brushing our bodies, ever curious. Once the baby also drifted out to visit, swam around, turned over on its back, then returned to the cluster of adults.

The manatee evolved in a relative paradise, with ample amounts of food and water, and no known predator, but their existence today is precarious. They are on the brink of extinction, though those closest to the manatee plight are hopeful. A major threat to the manatee is, of course, the most predacious mammal on the planet, man.

The irony of the "sanctuary" was that we were snorkeling in the midst of a Florida coastal housing development. The warm springs favored by manatees from time immemorial also provide an idyllic setting for single-family homes.

However, this is not as bad as it sounds. Within the residential development and the harbor area of Crystal River all boats are required to travel at idle speed. That gives the slow-swimming manatees time to dive when they detect a boat propeller headed their way.

Boats are the biggest danger to manatees. In the open ocean, high speed craft hit manatees frequently. Researchers aren't sure how well the manatees hear boats or within what range. Recent studies suggest that manatees may be able to hear for only 160 feet. A powerboat covers that distance in no time.

Tragically, about 85 percent of the manatees in existence in Florida have boat propeller scars on their hides. Far from a surface scratch, these cuts can be life threatening. Even worse are the internal wounds caused by collisions between manatees and watercraft. Ironically, the dramatic scars help researchers to distinguish and track manatees.

Anyone can go to Crystal River and a few other choice locations to snorkel with manatees during the winter months. It's a fascinating encounter, especially if directed by a knowledgeable guide, such as Bill Oestreich of Bird's Underwater tours.

"Our goal is to observe the manatee, but not alter its behavior," said Oestreich. "We don't chase them. We let them come to us if they wish."

The Florida manatee is a slow-motion animal. Adults are 10 feet long and weigh about 1,200 pounds, though record sizes of 13 feet and 3,000 pounds have been noted.

Snorkeling with ManateesManatees migrate over wide areas of the Southeastern U.S., making it difficult to establish preserves to protect them. They adapt well to fresh or salt water. As an endangered species, manatees are now protected by state and federal laws that make it illegal for anyone to harm or capture them.

They seem potato-like in appearance, with tiny eyes, two flippers, and a flat spatula-like tail. Though bulky, they glide through the water with grace and ease, turning and tumbling with the playfulness of a child.

The adult females reproduce slowly, only once every 2-5 years, with a gestation period of 13 months. Adults reach sexual maturity at roughly seven years.

They exhibit little fear and no hostility towards humans. Their food supply of aquatic plants may be affected by the quality of fresh water flow into the ocean. Manatees need to eat about 10 percent of their body weight in plants every day.

Beyond the danger of boating accidents, manatees also die of red tide poisoning. The small mollusks with the red tide toxins live on the aquatic plants that the manatees ingest.

Besides Crystal River, we enjoyed two other encounters with manatees--at the Tampa Electric Big Bend power station on Tampa Bay and the Manatee and Aquatic Center at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. Lowry was the first facility built specifically for manatee rehabilitation and is recognized as the most sophisticated of the three critical care facilities operating in Florida for sick, injured or abandoned manatees.

The Big Bend power station in Apollo Beach attracts manatees because, like a natural spring, it discharges a warm water supply that is appealing to these large mammals. Use of this water creates a dependence on man for these endangered animals, which is a risk. However, Big Bend might also be seen as a compensating habitat to replace destroyed refuges. The power company has built an observation platform and boardwalk for the public to watch manatees during the winter migration.

For year-round viewing, Lowry Park Zoo boasts a most engaging display of manatees. In a naturalistic setting, kids and adults can see the manatees up close, looking through large glass dividers. The manatee exhibit opened in 1991, putting the viewer nose-to-snout with these docile creatures. Some of the manatees on display are boat collision victims who were badly damaged and must heal before being returned to the wild. Two manatees on display were born at Lowry.

The manatees who come here are brought in through heroic efforts of manatee survival groups, who even have specially outfitted vans, ready to take an injured animal to the Lowry care center. Most of the injuries occur in South Florida.

With Sam Winslow, director of animal care at Lowry, we took a behind-the-scenes tour of the manatee area, as the public can. We watched the chief veterinarian, Dr. David Murphy, and his staff make strenuous efforts to save several manatees under their care.

The first task is getting the traumatized animal to eat. Manatees at Lowry eat mainly romaine lettuce, shipped in by the crate.

"Manatees are some of the most expensive mammals to feed in captivity," said Winslow. "Manatee food can cost $20,000 per animal per year."

Dr. Murphy and his staff performed their daily scrub on one injured manatee. An infected flipper had been surgically removed. Each day the staff took the manatee out of the water, tube fed it food and water, and cleaned its injuries with disinfectant. Even with that level of care, the manatee was doomed unless it regained enough strength for its own immune system to kick in and ward off infection.

A total of 25 manatees have been rehabilitated at Lowry and returned to the wild since 1991. Additionally, six were relocated to other facilities, six remain at Lowry, and, sadly, 16 injured manatees died despite the intense efforts to save them.

Dr. Murphy counts himself as one of the optimists on the plight on the manatee.

"Public education, especially of boaters, is a key," he said. "People identify with the manatee. We're seeing more public awareness of the manatee each year. It starts with our kids."

Winslow echoes the sentiments.

Manatee and Aquatic Center at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo"This mammal is certainly endangered, but its numbers are now relatively stabilized," he said. "Manatees have wide public support. In fact, the manatee exhibit at Lowry is our most popular attraction at the zoo."

When driving to Lowry, we noticed the Save the Manatee license plates that motorists can buy in Florida, with funds going to manatee research. The manatee is a favored icon around which communities create festivals and other celebrations.

But it was back at Crystal River where our fascination with manatees began. While snorkeling beside them, we understood why people call these passive grazers "sea cows."

We also realized that a world without these benign giants would be impoverished indeed.



Tampa International is the closest airport. Crystal River is a two-hour drive north of Tampa.

For information about manatee snorkel trips, available mid-October through mid-April, contact the Nature Coast Chamber at Crystal River, 28 N.W. Highway 19, Crystal River, FL 34428-3900, 352/795-3149; email address is

Bird’s Underwater is a local provider offering manatee snorkel tours. Call 352/563-2763 or write to 8585 Pine Needle Trail, Crystal River, FL 34428. Http:// is the Website; email address is

Lowry Park Zoo, 7530 North Boulevard in Tampa, 813/935-8552, is open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, excluding Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The Manatee Viewing Area at Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Plant in Apollo Beach is open late November through early April. Admission and parking are free. For information, call 813/228-4289.

For information about the Tampa area, contact the Tampa/Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Association, 400 North Tampa Street, Suite 1010, Tampa, FL 33602. Phone 800/448-2672 or 813/223-1111. Website is

Tips for Swimming with Manatees:

Wear a drysuit over a swimsuit to protect yourself against cold. The tour operator will provide the drysuit, along with fins, mask and snorkel.

Bring towels and dry clothes for the return trip after snorkeling in the chilly water. Most boats will have a small changing area and toilet on board.

Snorkeling is the best way to interact with the manatees because the bubbles from divers' air tanks can frighten them.

Passively float and wait for the manatee to approach. Do not attempt to touch or pursue a manatee but be aware that they might brush up against you.

Keep motion and noise to a minimum or the manatees may leave the area.

By Mary Lou Janson and Lee Foster


Sanibel Captiva
Fast Facts

Best Time to Go
Definitely, a year-round destination for fishermen --- grouper, cobia, flounder, and other fish are hauled in 12 months out of the year. cont...

Average Weather
January is the “coldest” month, with average daytime highs of 72 degrees. cont...

Southwest Florida International Airport in nearby Lee County is served by almost all major airlines cont...

In-Season Costs
Hotel rooms at resorts can be pricey, with $175 being an excellent rate for an in-season resort room, and occasional special rates in the $80 to $100 range. cont...

Day Trips
Sanibel Island Adventures, accessible at (941) 826-7566, offers day trips and overnights around the Southwest Florida waters, as does Captiva Cruises, who can be reached at (941) 472-5300. cont...

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