Citrus County, Fla., is the only place in North America where you can legally swim with manatees in their natural habitat. Hundreds of these endangered marine mammals, which look like an adorable cross between a seal and a potato, gather in the area’s rivers to wait out the winter in the 72-degree spring water. More than 100,000 travelers from around the world come to swim with the 1,300-pound vegetarians.
But things could change. Concerned about the safety of the animals, some groups would like to limit swimmers’ access to the manatees’ annual winter party.
To ensure the safety of the animals and keep the springs open to future visitors, follow these six tips to avoid acting like a jerk when you swim with manatees.
Practice “passive observation”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows “passive observation” of manatees in Citrus County’s springs. This means you can swim with and even pet the massive mammals, provided the manatees approach you first.
“Everything has to be up to the manatee,“ said Capt. John Pann, manager at the Crystal River Plantation Adventure Center & Dive Shop.
Don’t chase the manatees. Don’t try to lure them to you. Don’t swim down to manatees sleeping on the river floor. Your role is to float patiently on the surface — and the wait is worth it.
Some manatees seem genuinely curious about the humans in their midst. Once they’ve scoped you out, a few go as far as rolling over as if for a belly rub. Others give flipper hugs or scratchy-whiskered manatee kisses.
“They are especially fond of legs,” said Tara Tufo of the Citrus County Visitors and Convention Bureau.
Stay off the manatees’ lawn
Parts of the springs are roped off as dedicated manatee sanctuaries. These are spots where manatees can sleep and socialize without us humans bothering them. Buoys and ropes clearly define these areas, so you won’t get away with telling a wildlife official you accidentally drifted into the sanctuary.
Respect the manatees’ space. Undisturbed access to these areas is critical to their survival.
Go with a tour guide who isn’t afraid to get wet
Some tour groups drop anchor, point in the direction of the spring, and let swimmers find their way while the captain stays high and dry on the boat. Find a guide who will come into the water with you and walk you through the experience. This ensures a more manatee-friendly interaction. It also helps you avoid accidentally breaking any laws. Undercover wildlife officers patrol the springs, looking for rule-violating jerks who could face up to a year in jail or a $100,000 fine.
Don’t be an idiot
Don’t corner the manatees. Don’t stand on them. Don’t pinch or poke them. Not only is this downright mean, but it’s also the kind of behavior that drives the manatees away. If you want them to hang out with you, you have to play nice.
Do stick with snorkels
The sounds of scuba gear can bother the manatees. Snorkels cause less disruption in the water. They also keep you near the surface, which is critical to the whole “passive observation” thing.
While we’re on the subject of gear, avoid wearing flippers. Excessive splashing is another manatee nuisance. Flippers can also stir up the sandy river bottom, reducing your visibility in the water.
Do let the experience change you
My fiancé and I took a 7 a.m. manatee tour with seven other swimmers. Our boat ride out to the springs was quiet; families kept to themselves and couples spoke only to each other. But after our dip, as we stood dripping and shivering over hot chocolate on the boat’s deck, we couldn’t stop talking to each other about the experience. “Did you see the mother and that tiny calf?” “I swear I saw its eyes trying to focus on me.” “It suckled on my foot!”
“It’s a life-changing experience for some folks,” said Pann.
There’s something primeval about seeing a creature 10 times your size materialize in the blue-green water — hearing it squeak and chirp as it floats by, seeing the sun sparkle on the propeller scars that slash its back.
“You get in the water, you see how friendly and loving they are, you’re much more likely to want to protect that animal,” said Pann. “You’ll never speed through a manatee zone again.”