Manatees are about as close as one could come to your minds-eye view of a living Teddy Bear. They interact with you in a manner like no other living creature. They have personalities and they can obviously think. I say this because I’ve had so many wonderful experiences with them. When I first heard of them, I had no idea they existed and then Crystal River was only 1.5 hrs north of Tampa so I went as often as I could logistically. My first time at Crystal River, there was a guy who owned Port Paradise, right on the bay and he rented boats. One would take a small outboard out of his moorings and only have to go about a block an you were in manatee area in the main spring of Crystal River. He told me they were there but I didn’t see any. I came back a week or so later and he said they were there, but I didn’t see any. Another week or so and I went out after him telling me they were there. At that time, they didn’t like the bubbles of scuba so one would just snorkel. I was looking and looking and I heard someone call me. It was the guy (I’m so sorry I can’t remember his name). He called me over and asked if I had seen any. I told him no. He said, “Go down my anchor line”. The water was only about 15 ft deep so down I went, and his anchor was laying on one. I just had no idea how or what to go about it but I quickly learned. It took a while to be able to tell males from females by the ventral slits. There would be times when visibility was less than a yard and it was spooky being in the water with such big creatures. I was snorkeling and they were being really really active, moving fast and flipping tails in the air. Suddenly I came face to face with one…Literally nose to nose. I stopped and my feet went down so that I was in a sitting position. I felt one under my butt, and then one on each side. I was absolutely surrounded by them…curious to know what this foreigner was doing in their territory I guess.
One time, there was a female just hanging in the water in the big main spring. The only move she made was to occasionally lift her nose to take a breath. I looked her over good and in a while another one equally as big swam up to her. She lifted her right flipper as the other one opened it’s mouth almost 180 degrees wide. It closed down just behind that flipper and stayed there for almost an hour. I assumed it was nursing. She let me feel her chest area but I could not feel any density change like a breast, and the nursing one did not make any suckling motions.When it finally left, I got to examine a cylindrical object about 2 inches in diameter and 3 inches long with a punctate hole in the center. I “milked” it but saw nothing come out. So, I took off my mask and snorkel and figured I’d be the first human to taste manatee milk. I slowly put my head close to the “nipple” as that’s what I figured it to be. She tolerated me holding it and manipulating it, but when my face got about 6 inches she just slowly rolled away preventing me from sucking on it. I don’t know how she knew. I really wonder if anybody actually has done it. I have more manatee stories that I’ll add later. Here’s a pic of that one nursing.
Another day at Crystal River main spring, I was alone on snorkle and the water was quite murky, with visibilty only about 20-30 ft. I came upon a young manatee who was suspended about 8 ft underwater and level but facing away from me. I have to assume he didn’t see or feel me coming. I crept (ha…sounds funny underwater), up behind him and reaching out I just pushed his tail to the left. This caused him (as I found out) to rotate right in front of me and doing a 180, he came face to face with me. He quickly rolled and disappeared. I was on the surface when he came from behind and under me and came up like a submarine on his back ending up exactly parallel to me and facing me. Then he rolled back and disappeared again. After this game of tag and surprise, and I could actually feel the giggles, he came up close to me vertically and face on, or belly to belly. I had learned some time ago that they don’t like being hugged or squeezed, but he was so close, I just put my arms around him and hung on. With one sharp thrust of the tail he lifted us both out of the water. What an incredible experience and feeling. I was actually his playmate. We spent about an hour together, and I don’t recall any other people even in the water in the bay.
Probably the very most incredible experience I had was another time I was snorkeling alone and well across the bay from the main spring. I’ve mentioned they like their bellies scratched, and I had a large female enjoying my treatment. She would swim slowly by, close to me, and roll on her back and I would scratch as about 10 feet of belly goes by. After about 20 minutes of this, I came up on her as she was on her back with her nose barely breaking the surface. I swam slowly up on her from tail forward till my head was at about her neck, all the while, scratching her belly. When I got up that high on her, she put a flipper over my shoulder and very lightly hugged me. It freaked me out and I stiffened briefly, but she relaxed but kept the flipper there. Then she put the other flipper over me and held me with both flippers. This time I stayed relaxed and to my utter surprise, using her tail, she moved forward and did a roll taking me with her. I really doubt that Anyone else has ever had that experience. Mind boggling to say the very least. I have never seen manatees mating so I don’t know that what she did was in some way related.
One final short episode. I had a family with me with young kids. We were up the canal towards 3 Sisters Spring…about 1/4 mile from the main spring at Crystal River when I saw a female and two babies. It’s been said that twin births don’t occur with manatees, but these were definitely two babies..barely 4 feet long and with the characteristic wrinkled skin. We got into the water with them and they played with us for 5 to 10 minutes when I heard a squeaking noise in the water. The babies abruptly left us and swam to the mother who was about 20 ft away. They supported themselves on her back for a few minutes and then came back to frolic with us. The sound occurred again and back they went to the mom. It was obvious that she was calling them for rest periods. After a few of these occasions we left them. Another very unusual experience for all of us. I suspect for the manatees as well.