It’s the New Year! And even in the Sunshine State, people are dealing with chilly temperatures. So you might not get excited to step your toes into the cold waters of Crystal River in Florida.
But do it! Slip on one of the wetsuits provided by Manatee Fun Tours (www.manateefun.com) because they payoff is well worth the cold.
Each year, from November to early March, manatees return to the warm, spring-fed waters of Crystal River. It’s also the only place in the United States where you can legally swim with manatees. It’s a bucket list excursion that everyone should consider doing at least once in their lives.
When you go, be sure to follow the rules of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because manatees are a protected species. Included in the rules (which are listed in detail here: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Crystal_River/visit/rules_and_regulations.html), you cannot chase or harass these creatures. But who would want to? They are so sweet and gentle and seem just as curious about us as we are about them.
But—I know you’re wondering it—can you pet them? The safest way to touch a manatee is not to touch it. Let it touch you instead! Because if you are calm and quiet in the water, that’s exactly what will happen. These sweet, docile mammals will often come right up to you and give you what you’ll think of as a big kiss.
I’ve read that there is a lot of controversy about whether it should even be allowed to swim with these creatures. Many local groups and wildlife organizations say that the waters of Crystal River become too crowded with tourists during manatee season and it is not good for the species. Others say that manatee population in Crystal River has never been healthier.
As an eleven-year-old without any advanced biological or environmental degree, I’m not really sure where I stand on the argument. When we went, it was not quite high season yet. So there weren’t many people in the water and the manatees actively engaged us. But if I went right now, when the population hits its peak, I might experience something completely different.
I enjoy the opportunities to seek out wildlife in it natural environment and firmly believe that this helps us all appreciate and protect species like manatees. On a side note, I will never forget the sight of scars on one of the manatee’s backs who had been injured by a boat. Seeing that first-hand was like a punch to my gut, and I will tirelessly oppose anyone who speeds along manatee habitat and might harm these animals. There is nothing like seeing an animal in its environment that can build respect for all of nature’s beauty and for life itself.
But at the same time, I can imagine that waters crowded with tourists might be a real problem for these animals, and if there comes a time when scientists and authorities decide to reduce the number of tourists allowed to swim in Crystal River, I’ll be the first to step aside. We must be ever-vigilant about how we treat our struggling wildlife populations.
So if you take my advice, see them while you can. But be respectful of these marine mammals and all species, and use your experiences to educate others about the beauty of wildlife.