Introducing… Manatees in the wild

Snowbirds aren’t the only ones heading to warm climates when mercury plummets.

Manatees migrate in mass to bask in warmer inland waters. And there’s no better place to join them in their natural habitat than Crystal River, FL, proudly known as the Manatee Capital of the World.

In fact, the nature coast of Florida is the only place it’s legal to swim with these mammoth mammals.

Despite a plethora of choices, we picked Salty Sirens Tours for several reasons – they limit tours to six people for a more private and intimate experience, the boat is heated and has a head (bathroom) on board, they offer hot cocoa, coffee and bottled water on each tour, and the owners, a husband-wife team are super friendly, fun and full of fascinating facts.

Travel Beat staff recently booked a morning excursion with Salty Siren Tours for a three-hour tour (homage to Gilligan, Skipper and the rest of the S.S. Minnow gang here).

Here’s what to expect:

We watched a short video highlighting interesting manatee facts – their brains are smooth and thinking ability minimal, males and females have different body shapes and despite the mass winter migration, they prefer hanging solo.

We learned how to safely swim with the manatees so as not to disturb them – arms folded with no touching allowed.

Next, we headed for the dressing room to don wet suits. Being a licensed scuba diver, I’ve put on these always much-too-tight-but-will-keep-you-warmer apparel hundreds of times. It’s no easy feat, especially for first-timers.

After squeezing into our suits, we boarded a van for a quick trip to the Salty Sirens boat and boarded.

Captain Ed piloted us near a protected warm springs sanctuary area, anchored, then we slipped into the mid-70s water via a long and sturdy boat ladder. No matter what time of year you visit, water temp remains constant. On this late December day, the water felt chilly as it seeped in, but the wet suits did their job – warming water temp closer to body temperature.

Meeting manatees:

Swimming with our required pool noodles, we swam a short distance to the sanctuary. No feet kicking or arm movements upon entering the roped-off protected area – we folded our arms across our chests to limit motion.

The WOW water moment was well worth the wait. Beneath us and everywhere we looked, herds of these massive mammals floated like blobs of blubber, rising to the surface every three to five minutes for a breath of air. A single breath replenishes 90 percent of their lungs, compared to 10 percent refill per human breath.

Our tour guide shot GoPro photos and videos as we floated in this mystical, magical, manatee maze. We saw moms and babies (if you can call them that when they’re born at an average four-feet long and 70 pounds). Here’s some more pretty heavy info – they stick with mama for about two years and tip the sea scales at 1,000 to 2,000 pounds as adults.

Although we weren’t allowed to reach out and touch them, they’re curious creatures. Don’t be surprised if one swims up to you, or brushes against your feet. It’s an unforgettable experience, staring into the eyes of these gentle giants.

Time passed quickly in this quiet space. Before we knew, it was time to head to the heated boat for a warm welcome of coffee and hot chocolate en route to port.

Warming up on the boat

Winter months are clearly the best time to hang with mounds of manatees, but Crystal River has 70 to 100 permanent residents – even during hot summer months.

According to Salty Siren owners, Captain Kim and Captain Ed, due to local, state and federal efforts, the manatee population is thriving.

We feel that an in-water swim experience is an important part of this education and conservation effort,” Captain Kim said, adding that their highly trained in-water guides ensure the utmost care and respect by encouraging passive observation.

Salty Siren Tours operate manatee adventures year-round. Summer months, scallop and other specialty tours are added to the schedule.

For more information, call 352-794-1479 or visit their website.

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