Growing up, I was very blessed that my parents took my sisters and I on some special family vacations together.
Florida seemed to be a repeat destination, though, and it’s no surprise as to why. There are unlimited attractions for families to discover in ‘The Sunshine State,’ with big cities like Orlando and Tampa beckoning droves of locals and tourists alike to their amusement parks and water worlds.
In comparison, Crystal River may not get anywhere close to the same volume of traffic—but it has an attraction these larger cities don’t: swimming with manatees.
Manatees are a living icon of Florida just like Mickey Mouse, orange juice and the beaches. The lovable sea cows are a critical tourist attraction, bringing more than 70,000 people to Crystal River annually to see and swim with them. — Captain Mike’s Swimming with the Manatees
In fact, Crystal River is the only place in all of North America where you can legally swim alongside these “sea cows” of the coasts. And there’s a good reason for that: they need to be protected.
As the World Wildlife Fund says:
Around the 1970s, the Florida manatee numbers dropped frightfully low. But conservation efforts have significantly bolstered their numbers, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced the mammals had been downlisted from Endangered to Threatened on the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. But even with this progress in the Florida populations, these slow-moving mammals still face substantial threats, including water pollution, collisions with boats, and habitat loss.
Now that they’re protected by federal and state law, tour operators are required to provide guests with important information about manatees and instructions on how to properly interact with them (as well as what not to do) before departing with their tour groups. In order to keep manatees safe and help their populations recover, they are monitored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A Swim To Remember
This was probably one of the most unique travel experiences I’ve ever had with my family! It’s certainly not as popular as, say, going to Disney World or Universal Studios, but it was magical in a totally different way.
I am a big fan of ecotourism and love seeing and learning about animals of all kinds. I’m constantly watching nature and animal documentaries on TV, but nothing compares to an up-close, in-person encounter.
There is something truly special about seeing animals in their natural habitats, free to roam where they want and live their lives how they were meant to. I also believe it’s one of the best ways to learn about them, and a way for humans to develop a stronger connection with them. When you are given the chance to interact with another creature in a safe environment, you become more interested in them and their welfare, and you begin to understand how everything is connected.
Developing Connections with Manatees
It’s important for people to learn to care about these gentle giants, not only because they have a right to be here, but also because they play an important role in the ecosystems of the area, keeping vegetation growth under control and providing natural fertilizer.
The moment you get in the water and see their large, grey bodies moving slowly around you, or grazing on some vegetation along the bottom of the river, you realize you’re in their home. The water is their domain, and you’re simply a visitor here. I felt nothing but respect for these creatures, as well as a fascination for them and their way of life.
The boat tour we took and the experience of snorkeling with manatees was extremely humbling, and one that I will never forget. With a rare opportunity like this, it’d be surprising if you left Crystal River without a newfound interest in marine conservation and protection, and a sense of responsibility to do your part.
And that, I think, is one of the reasons these manatee encounters are so important!