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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The River Ventures Experience: Up Close and Personal with Florida Manatees

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Up Close With Manatees
On July 6, I had one of the most exciting experiences in my life, bringing me closer to the nature of Florida than I have ever been.  My family and I had booked a tour with River Ventures in Crystal River to come up close and personal with manatees in their natural habitat.  They made it clear that this was not a Sea World experience, in which we were guaranteed to see manatees swimming around in a man-made concrete pool; this was the real deal.  We were entering the natural waters of Florida, the home of the manatees.

Crystal River, FL (via Google)
Our experience began around 9:15, at which time we were taken to a room to learn more about this greatly threatened species before setting off to the water.  We were informed that Crystal River is one of the few places left in Florida where one can legally swim with these creatures in their natural habitat.  In most of Florida, doing so can land one up to a year in prison!  Because of this, 120,000 people were attracted last year alone to visit the small town of Crystal River.
We watched the usual safety and procedure video (though it was mostly for the safety of the manatees, as an asthma attack was the closest that anyone ever got to getting hurt during the tour).  We then dressed into our wet suits and were driven out to the river.

Captain Mike leads Caitlin to the Manatee!
We were taken to Pete’s Pier, where we were greeted by Captain Michael Birns, our tour guide for the day.  He was an extremely experienced marine biologist who brought great joy to the tour.  He assured us all that while we were not guaranteed to see any manatees, the odds were in our favor.  Of all the years that he has done it twice a day, he only had nine occurrences when no manatees were found.
Crystal River included about 400 acres of water, in which around fifty to sixty manatees called home during the summer.  During the winter months, this number expands to hundreds, as manatees migrate from miles around to breed.  However, a summer tour includes much excitement, as finding the manatees can be somewhat of a challenge.

Dressed and ready to swim!
However, we had little challenge finding one, as our boat was the last to depart and another had spotted a manatee already!  We made our way down the river to take a look at this find, but by the time we put our snorkels on and departed from the boat, she had vanished.  However, we did practice snorkeling at that moment and saw a gigantic fresh water turtle below.

Under the Sea
We then reboarded our small vessel but spent little time on the boat until we had spotted another manatee.  We once again departed from the boat, but this time we had the opportunity to meet this creature face-to-face.  It approached us closely, eating from the algae-covered river bottom and coming up every few minutes for breaths.  It would glide right to us without fear and allow us to place our hand on its hairy back.  It even swam below us a few times.  During an occurrence like this, we were instructed to remain still.  However, at one point, it crossed below me, and I accidentally collided with it while trying to give it more space.  At this, it began to glide away from us tourists.  I felt like a terrible person for ending everyone’s close encounter but kept this occurrence quiet!

A manatee approaches Captain Mike
However, upon boarding the boat, it did not take us long to find three more manatees, this time in a small group!  Two adults and a calf (manatees are defined with the same terminology as cows) were swimming through the water.  We once again had the opportunity to swim with these creatures.  Some people had the chance to see the mother nursing her calf, but I unfortunately missed this.  Nonetheless, I had both the calf and her large mother pass me while in the water.

Manatee Petting (ONE HAND ONLY!)
I enjoyed this tour so much that I was still in the water long after the rest of my group had boarded the boat.  I could not see why they were in such a hurry; I was simply living in the moment.

Swimming with Sea Cows
Our tour had taken the course of about two-and-a-half hours, but while in the water, it felt as if time had stopped ticking and nothing else really mattered.  It was one of those experiences that I will look back and remember years from now.  Very few people can say that they swam with manatees!  After all, doing so is illegal in almost the entire rest of Florida!

River Ventures (via riverventures.com)
I greatly enjoyed touring with River Ventures and would highly recommend it to anyone that wants the full manatee experience.  For only $45, this company offers an excellent tour with enthusiastic staff.  If you have the opportunity, request Mike as your captain.  He talks quite a lot (as his wife acknowledges), but knows exactly what he is talking about and really adds to the experience!
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