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Experience the ‘gentle giants’ of the sea

By Staff | Dec 31, 2014

Up to 400 manatees congregate at the Crystal River refuge, located just north of Tampa Bay. PHOTO PROVIDED



The marine wildlife is one of the top attractions to visit Southwest Florida and the manatee sits atop of that list in most peoples’ cases.

The manatee is a magnificent creature which makes the Gulf coast its home, but much like the incoming Snowbirds from the North, they migrate to warmer temps during the winter season.

One large group of manatees make their way to the King’s Bay area, which is surrounded by Crystal River Preserve State Park, located just north of Tampa Bay about 3 and a half hours from Sanibel.

Manatees are mammals and need to surface about every three to five minutes for air. PHOTO PROVIDED

It’s also the location for the Sanibel Sea School’s next adventure, as they are offering a three-day “Swim with the Manatees” experience Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 19-21.

“We are positioned well in Florida to see manatees,” said Sanibel Sea School co-founder Dr. Bruce Neill. “We have some of most dense population of manatees in the United States. But we only get to see a little bit of them, like their eyes or their nose. We don’t get to see them fully. This is a way to fully engage with them.”

Although the manatee is a large creature, they do not have much fat to insulate them from the colder temperatures of the Gulf waters in the winter. The herbivore animal can’t survive in water below 68-degrees for more than a day or two, so they make their break for warmer waters, which usually brings them inland to freshwater springs.

They can live in salt or freshwater and prefer waters about three to seven feet deep. Areas such as Manatee Park in Fort Myers and the Caloosahatchee River provide the warm water manatees seek.

But the Crystal River is a main attraction for manatees, which provides protection to over 400 manatees and the opportunities for people to interact with them. The average adult manatee is about 10 feet long and weights between 800 to 1,200 pounds.

With no real natural predators, manatees can survive up to 60 years. Besides loss of habitat, boat strikes are the highest cause of mortality for manatees. PHOTO PROVIDED

“Manatees are very muscular and lean, and do not have much fat on them,” Neill said. “They are challenged in the winter time and can go into cold shock if they don’t find warmer temperatures. So they migrate into the rivers. A very large portion, for unknown reasons, go to Crystal River and hang out.

“(Crystal River) is very well managed. They have a manatee refuge where they can stay and humans can’t go. It’s very well patrolled.”

But Crystal River has some of the best opportunities to interact with the manatees, which are very calm and docile creatures. The expedition will allow the participants to swim in the same waters as the manatees, thus allowing some rare moments with the endangered animal.

“We will jump in with wet suits and do some snorkeling,” Neill said. “We will be getting an up close view of the manatees, you just can’t touch them. Manatees are inquisitive animals. I’ve had them come up to me while I was in water and come to within three feet.

“If you are moving slowly, they don’t have a lot of fear.”

But human interaction is limited in that no touching of the manatees are allowed. This is strictly enforced by officials, as well.

Manatees are protected by both state and federal law in Florida, including the The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Manatees are also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978.

According to the Save the Manatee Club, there are at least 4,831 manatees in Florida after an aerial survey was done in January of 2014.

Since 1991, manatees’ numbers have increased, although there hasn’t been any official documentation taken for worldwide population.

The Sanibel Sea School’s journey to Crystal River starts Thursday, Feb. 19, with departure from Sanibel at 9 a.m. Neill and his Sanibel Sea School staff will hold a lecture on manatee biology and behavior that evening.

Friday morning will be the actual swimming opportunities with the manatees.

But participants will not only learn and experience the manatee, but about the ecosystems in which they are being exposed to.

“The springs of Southwest Florida are very interesting ecosystems in themselves,” Neill said. “So we’ll be learning a little more than just about manatees.”

The expedition will pack up Saturday, Feb. 21, morning and head back to Sanibel, along with many unforgettable memories.

There is a limited number of spaces available and for cost and registration, contact the Sanibel Sea School at 239-472-8585. For more information about the Sanibel Sea School or about the manatee trip to Crystal River, visit their website at www.sanibelseaschool.org.

The “Swimming with the Manatees” itinerary:

  • Thursday 2/19/15

9 AM: Depart Sanibel Sea School for Crystal River (approx. 4 hr. drive)

2 PM: Check-in to accommodations at Plantation on Crystal River

2 – 4 PM: Get settled in and optional kayaking in Kings Bay

4 5:30 PM: Lecture: Manatee Biology and Behavior

5:30 PM: Dinner

  • Friday 2/20/15

7 AM: Breakfast

8 12 AM: Boat trip to manatee sanctuary/ snorkel with manatees

12 4 PM: Lunch and free time

4 – 5:30: Lecture: How Florida’s Watersheds Affect Manatees

5:30 PM: Dinner

  • Saturday 2/21/15

9 AM: Depart Crystal River for Sanibel Sea School (arrive approx. 2 PM).