As I rise early morning in anticipation of a 6am manatee tour, the steamy and thick air instantly curls my hair! Nothing quite like summertime in Florida! The sun isn’t up yet, but the heat and humidity have begun.
Being an in-water Manatee Tour guide is my PASSION! It’s such a joy to meet people from all over the world and I consider it a true honor to introduce these visitors to my manatee friends. Seven days a week, all year round, not only do I get to visit with my favorite animals in the world, but I can share it with like-minded individuals that leave with a sense of wonder that’s difficult to express! Laughter, amazement, squeals of excitement, and even tears of joy sometimes... the emotions that emerge during this excursion may sneak up and surprise you!
Winter season is such an extraordinary time here in Citrus County, as hundreds of manatee take refuge in our warm spring waters, but there are many unsung benefits to manatee tours in the summer season. We may not have as many manatee here during the warm weather, but our resident population always delights! Over the years, we have found that this area tends to act as a nursery for mother manatees to keep their newborns safe and close. It seems that King’s Bay manatee do not teach their offspring the migration habit until the second year of life and that offers us a unique chance to see these pairs in their natural habitat!
Birds, turtles and babies, oh my!
What an awesome eco-system to explore, you just never know what you will see out there! I greet my group at daybreak, snap a few quick pictures of their beautiful but sleepy faces, and we load up our pontoon to find the elusive summer manatees! On the way out, we chit chat, learn about the animals and ensure that everyone understands the rules…..even my guests from Spain that speak very little English. We size up the gear, go over snorkeling basics and before we know it, my Captain has laid her eyes on two manatee munching their breakfast near Hunter’s Spring. With hushed excitement (we must stay quiet) and a sense of urgency, one by one each guest follows me down the ladder and into the chilly water. I do a quick gear check, make sure all of my people can float while hearing instructions…..then we start to head the short distance to our hungry manatees!
Observing these munching giants is an excellent place to start! They make such a mess as they rip out the grasses by the root and use their facial palettes like vacuum cleaners. That is their job out there and they are not at all interested in us! They stir up the mud at the bottom and visibility is limited, so I slowly ensure that each one of my guests gets the opportunity for a close up view of the insatiable beasts! It only seems like a few minutes, but time flies when you are floating with manatee!! As another group approaches, our manatees swim away and we regroup at the boat to head to another location.
At this point it’s typical that the group relaxes, they have seen an animal, figured out the semantics and realized how easy the whole experience is! No longer worried or uptight, our group bonds over quick stories and each shares their amazement! Awesome! So COOL!! Wow, what a sight, I can’t believe how BIG they are! These sentiments, though completely genuine in every case, are quotes I hear daily! Even my Spanish family let’s out an astounded ‘Incredible!!’ I may not speak Spanish, but I certainly know what they mean!
I check my phone quickly, as our team has an online network where we update each other on the animals and group size of humans gathering. We do our best to not overcrowd one area for the benefit of the animals and customers. Sure enough….another Captain has texted us to let us know that a mom and baby pair are near Three Sisters in clear water with no other groups around! This is the call we have been waiting for! Even I can hardly contain my excitement and I think that makes my guests even more excited!
Stay right there manatees, here we come!
We slowly start our way towards the sighting and within 5 minutes we are anchoring in crystal clear water and can see the animals from over 20 feet away! Again, we descend down the ladder one by one… the group has got this down now! Approaching the area we give the momma plenty of space so they feel safe and unbothered. But I quickly see that the sweet, little baby has no intention of giving us OUR space!
I’ve seen this little nugget before! I recognize the distinct markings on his nose…..mama seems hungry and tired, she recognizes me and seems to let the baby know that we are a GO FOR A MANATEE ENCOUNTER! Squeak, squeak she says…..and the baby quickly, bravely makes a v-line for a young girl in my group with braided hair from Vermont. My young guest behaves perfectly…she freezes, and floats. That makes the baby manatee even more confident to explore and before long he nuzzles near her neck, seemingly amazed by her ginger braids! I hear her quiet giggles as the manatee gently yanks her hair and then moves to on to check out the next guest. The father from the Spanish family almost panics, as this big baby animal seems fascinated by his beard! With a quick reminder from me and an encouraging touch…..he calms himself and does his observational float like a champ!! One by one, the little one checks out everyone in my group, and is attracted to my camera like a magnet. Oh, what breathtaking pictures I will have!! With silence and respect we let the baby have his way, harassing us the whole time, until he swims away into the blue with momma by his side. What a unique privilege we have towatch these babies grow every day, that is something I will never take for granted!
Wow. Just another day in the life of a River Ventures Manatee guide!
Not too shabby… and, yes, if you are asking… I do get paid for this! The Captain lets me know that we still have 20 minutes left, so I invite my guests to follow me into the world famous Three Sister’s spring where we swim and laugh, dive down and take pictures, observe huge schools of fish, then head back to our waiting vessel. We are back at the dock in no time as the group is buzzing with happiness and exhaustion. The van waits for us at the dock, and one by one these awesome folks thank me for the ‘Best Day Ever’ with 6 hugs and 3 kisses. It sure is nice to know that we made such an impact on these people that they now feel as if we are on hugging and kissing terms! Yes, doing a manatee tour together changes you and creates a feeling of brotherhood that is impossible to express.
Thank You family from Spain! Thank you family from Vermont! I will never forget you and our day with Baby Nugget (yes, that’s what we call him)! Summer may not bring us hundreds of manatee, but with ONE baby encounter like this... how can we even wish for more??
Many people ask me ‘How many manatee will we see?’, ‘Will the water be clear?’ These things can be very hard to predict in the warm weather… but regardless, we always have a wonderful time! The biggest benefit to the tour in the summer? Typically I say babies and interactive animals but for many people the air temperature alone justifies a summer trip! There may not be a hundred animals, but you won’t freeze your buns off either!
Summer or winter… come see us to meet our gentle giants and have the time of your life!