By Mike Fabish
In February 2011, I went to St Augustine, Florida to see my son Justin, and we had the chance to swim with the manatees in Crystal River.
The trip started with a late night-before arrival in Crystal River because we had to be at the dive shop at 7 am (a 3 hour drive from St Augustine). When the alarm went off, it was a surprising 28° F outside, and frost covered everything. We dressed in our wet suits at the shop, and drove to the marina to board our charter boat. The fog was just starting to lift from the warmer-than-air water as we made the short trip, received our briefing.
I learned that it is a federal offense to interact with manatees while in scuba gear. We could only be in snorkel mode, to protect the animals from too much human pressure. Once there, we stepped off the boat and walked to where 30-40 manatees were, and spent a couple hours with them in the fresh water. The water there is 70° F year around, while the Gulf was only around 65° F (in February), so the animals stay in the river until the Gulf becomes warmer.
It was an amazing time and there were many calves around that craved the “attention” we would give them. They rolled over like puppies to have their bellies scratched and gave lots of photo opportunities.
After spending time at that shallow area (3-5 ft) we moved to a cavern opening where a few manatees hung out. There, a few paid divers on board checked out the cavern and I did some free diving to the opening and took photos of the divers. There were a couple of very large adult manatees we spend some time with by the pontoon boat.