SANIBEL CAPTIVA ACTIVITIES
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
SNORKELING WITH MANATEES: IF YOU GO
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Birds 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://www.xtalwind.net/~bird/ is
the Website; email address is email@example.com.
Lowry Park Zoo, 7530 North Boulevard in Tampa,
813/935-8552, is open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, excluding Thanksgiving
The Manatee Viewing Area at Tampa Electrics
Big Bend Power Plant in Apollo Beach is open late November through
early April. Admission and parking are free. For information, call
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 http://www.gotampa.com.
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
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