Swimming with Florida’s Manatees

February 13, 2014 at 10:54 am (fine art photography, National Wildlife Refuges (US Fish & Wildlife), Nature, Wildlife) (, , , , , )

Baby Manatee

Baby Manatee

Swimming with the manatees is one of the peak experiences of my life.  These sweet, gentle creatures come to Florida’s warm springs when their feeding areas in the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean are too cold.  They may huddle there for several days during cold snaps, but often travel back and forth to feed and rest.  Since the springs are 72 degrees, they provide the warmth they need to avoid hypothermia.

Manatee in King Spring

Manatee in King Spring

Of course, this migration sparked an amazing tourist migration as well.  Tour boat companies know where the manatees are, and do their best to teach visitors good manatee manners to avoid harassing or disturbing them.  I realize that, as a former U.S. Fish & Wildlife employee, protecting the wildlife is the priority, and there are some who say any human interaction with the manatees is bad.  However, I believe that when you give people an emotional connection to the resource (thanks Freeman Tilden) they are more likely to “take ownership” and want to protect it.

A curious baby and the tour captain trying to film it

A curious baby and the tour captain trying to film it

We don’t need to see elephants or rhinos in the wild to be adamant that they should not be poached.  But having a personal experience, especially with a creature that is mostly hidden in the sea or rivers, can make us even more passionate about protecting these endangered mammals.  As long as people don’t abuse the privilege – and the folks at Bird’s Underwater Dive Shop have done an amazing job of keeping visitors in line – I think it’s safe to say that human-manatee interactions are not only well tolerated, but even welcomed by the manatees themselves.

February dawn at Three Sisters Springs

February dawn at Three Sisters Springs

The babies, of course, are the most curious, and they seek out new playmates to “taste” or beg a belly rub from.  The adults seem more ho-hum, though they don’t mind a belly rub or a face-to-face at times.  The best way to see them in clear water is in places like the Three Sisters Springs, but a different experience can be had at King Spring which is murkier.  There, you can be swimming along and suddenly run into a manatee, which due to the limited visibility, looks like an algae-covered rock!  They are so used to bumping up against each other, and to the human schools of “fish” that hang out there, that they seem not to notice.  It was low tide when we went, so you could see the backs of many of the manatees as they rested on the rocky bottom.

Coming up for air in somebody's "backyard"

Coming up for air in somebody’s “backyard”

I noticed that these manatees had more algae on their bodies than the ones at the Three Sisters.  There are some “resident” manatees that stay year-round and may sport these algae coats because of the amount of time they spend in fresh water.  Those spending most of their time in the ocean may have barnacles on their skin and tails, which will die and fall off once they’re in freshwater.  Likewise, the algae will die off once the manatee returns to sea water.  Thus there is a changing array of epibiota on their bodies.

Barnacle-entrusted tail

Barnacle-entrusted tail

Some manatees – especially the babies – have many bumps and wrinkles, and others are smooth.  In the video you can see some nails on the baby’s fins, which resemble the toenails of their close relatives, the elephants!


Bird’s Underwater will videotape your manatee experience, which is well worth the purchase.  It is also a great deal of fun talking to other visitors – many of whom have traveled extensively and have other snorkel/dive experiences to tell about.  People on our tour came from Canada, Germany, Austria, Louisiana, and there was even a TV crew from Japan.


You can now purchase little underwater cameras and do your own photos and video.  The Nikon CoolPix AW-110 is wonderful – the controls are easy to see underwater, and even though it doesn’t give you manual options, the results are amazing for a non-professional camera.  Of course, post-processing is needed to really bring out the colors and to clone out an unwanted hand or flipper.  I could have even cloned out that camera person above if I had wanted to.  To see the unedited versions, go to my Manatee Gallery.  Long live the manatees!

Who can resist this cutie pie?

Who can resist this cutie pie?

Photos and text copyrighted by Cindy McIntyre

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Website:  CindyMcIntyre.com

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  1. Phil said,

    Cindy for Brandon’s birthday last year i got tickets for him and his parents to go to Crystal River to swim with the manatees. They went with friends and had a great experience. Loved reading your blog about it. Take care, Phil

  2. Joan Campbell said,

    Glad you enjoyed the manatees. We are just back from Florida and were disappointed that the NWR had closed Three Sisters Spring. It was very cold so we were not interested in swimming with the manatees – just wanted to see them from the boardwalk but, unfortunately, the Refuge had closed it all down. They said it was to protect the manatees but I didn’t see how viewing them from the shore/observation deck would be harmful. It was disappointing but we were able to see manatees at other springs in the area. We got a little sunshine for a little while at Blue Springs Park…plenty of manatees there. Lots of birds in the area too. We had a great visit notwithstanding our disappointment at Crystal River.

    • Cindy McIntyre said,

      Hi Joan – I know it’s disappointing to not get access to the Three Sisters, but I was told they are doing renovations and putting in a visitor center at that land site. It could also be staffing shortages – Fish & Wildlife and the National Park Service have all had budget cuts the last few years – including the sequester last Spring – and services are being cut back. I haven’t been to Blue Springs – glad you got to see them there!

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