CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. (CIRCA) — There is one area in America where a person can legally swim with, interact and even touch manatees -- and that's in two cities on the west coast of Florida.
It's illegal to swim with manatees everywhere else in the country except for a manatee tour in Crystal River or Homosassa, Florida. The tours give a person a chance to have a one-on-one underwater encounter with these docile, gentle giants.
Manatees are a protected marine mammal that were recently downgraded from endangered to a threatened species. Many Floridians are used to seeing them in canals, rivers and springs in their backyards. They might be tempted to touch them because of their cuteness and friendly nature. However, if they get caught doing so it can result in prison time or a hefty fine. That's because of the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. It states that it's "unlawful for any person, at any time, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass or disturb any manatee."
“So, this area of Florida is very unique because there was a history of manatee tours so this is the only area where you’re allowed to swim with them. Historically, I think we were sort of grandfathered in because that was the tourism here. One thing the tour does is it promotes a respect for the animal. There are those would say tourism is bad but swimming with a manatee gives people this ecstatic feeling and there’s so much wanting to protect the manatee after they have that experience.”
People travel to western Florida from all over to legally interact with these "teddy bears of the ocean." The day Circa visited there were three other pontoon boats in the same canal. Next to the boats were groups of 5-10 people with snorkel masks on, floating on pool noodles with their heads in the water.
Everyone hopes for that magical underwater moment but it's never a guarantee. The second boat captain, Jessie Owens, explained that each encounter is different. Some days they don't see many manatees while other days people get lucky and get the chance to be surrounded by them.
“Every single one of them is different. You won’t have the same interaction one day…as you will the next day. It’s sometimes very intimidating to have such a big animal be like ‘hey I want to come explore you…what are you?’"
This particular day was more than lucky, as a baby manatee found the group to be particularly interesting. He swam over multiple times and even gave out two long Eskimo kisses. The interaction was more than we ever imagined it to be. The baby manatee was curious, playful and gentle. Captain Mary Morgan explained the baby manatees are the most curious with humans in the water. "Some manatees come right up to people. The youngsters are very curious and they will leave the parents and swim right up to people."
Manatees don't have any natural predators in the wild. In fact, the biggest threats to these friendly animals are boat strikes and human interaction. This is why humans shouldn't feed or provide water for them. “The biggest things is don’t interrupt them. Don’t stop them from what they’re doing naturally. Feeding or giving water is a big NO-NO because it teaches them that OK there’s water by you but what if you’re not there? They need to keep their natural sense that I know where all these food sources are and locate their own food and drink,” Mary Morgan explained. Another big thing humans can do to ensure their protection is to abide by the speed limits as to not hit manatees that are swimming by and cause boat strike injuries.
A recent new threat has emerged for all marine life off the coasts of Florida - and that's the red tide. It's a harmful and toxic algae bloom that's responsible for thousands of dead animals washed ashore. So far over 500 manatees have died from the red tide in 2018.
“The red tide causes neurological problems causing paralysis to the manatees. What this does is it prevents them from being able to breathe. When they have a hard time breathing they go into respiratory distress. Without very prompt intervention they can die very quickly.”
Although, this small area of western Florida wasn't directly affected by red tide, they've seen the ripple effects of the rest of the state's red tide epidemic. The Homosassa Wildlife Center recently welcomed manatees that are recovering from red tide poisoning, in an effort to make room at other state rescue facilities."The three male manatees we have - they were rescued from Sea World...they were rescued from other areas affected by red tide. They went to Sea World for critical care before coming here to our state park where they're in limbo until the red tide subsides. Then they can be released," Spratt explained. If found in time, manatees can quickly recover from red tide poising when they are put in fresh water.
These cuddly sea cows can get up to 1500 pounds and usually live around 30 years in the wild. However, some manatees here in Crystal River have doubled that life expectancy. Floridians can easily spot them swimming in their backyard canals by looking for a large, slow moving object that Captain Jessie Owens describes as a "baked potato with a tail."
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"When you're looking for a manatee you're looking for something that looks similar in the size of a big baked potato with a tail. We use that analogy too because that way people understand that they're friendly and they're not going to hurt you...a baked potatoe is not going to hurt you. So if this big 1500 pound animal approaches you, I always say to remember 'baked potato with a tail' and that helps them relax a little bit."