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Crystal River & The Magical Manatees

Crystal River & The Magical Manatees

Oct 2014

Words & pics Graham Fenwick 

An encounter with a mystical manatee is an unforgettable experience. These creatures, relatives of the elephants, were once thought to be mermaids. West African folklore considered them sacred and to have been human once. Graham Fenwick was lucky enough to swim with them and bring back the memories and pictures.

Trips to any dive destination are often fraught with uncertainty and this was true of a late season trip to Crystal River, Florida, to dive with the manatees. When researching the trip, advice ranged from; “The manatees will have left the springs already and the channel water is dirty in March.”  “It’s risky at this time of year, you can’t count on the weather these days” and lastly, “Gators, you must watch out for Gators”. Needless to say, the first concern I had to put to rest was the “Gator “ issue. I discovered that although there are a surprising number of  reported attacks in the state of Florida, none of them occurred in Crystal River.  I was further reassured when I learnt that the springs, with their clear, moving water, were not a suitable habitat for the reptiles in question. Partly convinced and no wiser about the weather, I did what every enthusiastic diver traveller does and will continue to do in the future. I booked my ticket. I was finally on my way to the headwater springs of Crystal River to swim with the gentlest of all creatures, the manatees.

The Florida manatee, (Trichechus manatus ssp latirostris) a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, is believed to live to 60 years of age. It can weigh over 500kgs and grow up to four metres in length. These marine mammals are mostly herbivorous and have very slow metabolisms, this means that they can’t survive in water below 15 degrees centigrade for a sustained length of time. With the onset of winter in November, the manatees are forced to migrate from the warm shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the headwaters of the Crystal, Chassahowitzka and Homosassa rivers which all maintain a year round temperature of 22 degrees. They congregate in large groups numbering in the hundreds until the summer returns in April when they return to the Gulf. 

Some manatees have discovered the warm water outflows of the numerous power plants along the Florida coast and no longer migrate south as they once did. Conservationists are concerned that these manatees have become too reliant on these artificially warmed water over wintering sites. 

When they are not sleeping, eating or travelling, these slow, gentle animals show a remarkable curiosity towards divers. They have no natural enemies so this curiosity borders on the playful. 

Protected by the Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, fines can be as high as $20 000 so it is essential that you get the latest updates on how to behave around the Manatees when you arrive in Crystal River. Fortunately, every boat rental agency, dive shop and tour operator is well versed in the rules and laws and will require you to watch a short educational video on the topic. In short, it is illegal to disturb or act in any way that changes the behavior of a Manatee. The law aside, the best way to observe and interact with them is to snorkel on the surface and wait for a manatee to approach you, which they will do if you are patient and quiet.

There are numerous tour operators offering trips to see these creatures but if you wish to avoid the crowds, get out early or just explore the rest of Kings Bay at your leisure, you can hire kayaks, canoes, J-boats or pontoon boats. Wanting to spend a full day out on the water and be free to explore at my leisure, I found the aluminium J-boat perfectly suited to my needs. In fairness, all of the options allow for a memorable encounter with the mantees, should they be there. 

Alone with my thoughts, spinning the globe in my mind, zooming in to where I found myself in the world, I was delighted by the arrival of a mother with her calf in tow. I was finning gently on the surface, the calf could not contain its curiosity for long so it broke away and swam up to me. I put my hand out expecting it to roll over for a belly scratch but it rolled upright in the water mimicking my position and extended its fore limbs. I tentatively reached out and took them in my hands and immediately noticed the fingernails. Distracted for a moment with this discovery, I gently squeezed what can only be described as a manatee hand, only to have the gesture returned. The moment, face to face, holding hands in the clear spring waters of the Crystal River headwater was what I had least expected but it has become an enduring memory of both a special place and the beautiful manatees. 


Established in 1983 specifically for the protection of the Manatees, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge preserves the last undeveloped habitat in Kings Bay, which includes warm water headwaters of Crystal River. The only refuge specifically for the protection of the endangered Florida Manatee, Kings Bay is home to the Worlds largest aggregation of manatees in the wild. It is also the only place in Florida where the Federal Government allows for “passive observation” in the water, between manatees and people. 


Save the Manatee Club
United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Source: The Divesite