Skip to content

Diving Different in 2013: Unique Underwater Encounters

(DiverWire) Contributing writer Lisa Mongy continues her series on “Diving Different in 2013”. Here she talks about encountering some marine creatures unique to Florida.

As recreational Florida divers with such a bounty off our coasts, we rarely look elsewhere for dive opportunities, least of all inland (save for the many dark corridors, which are relegated to the cave and cavern divers, who brave their submerged passages). Yet, Florida is host to one of the best family interactive dive opportunities in the world, right here in our state’s natural springs. And it’s a memorable activity for any level of diver.

Kings Spring, Three Sisters Spring, and Jurassic Spring are sanctuaries to migratory manatee herds, where they can safely graze and recoup energy when the gulf waters are to cold. The US Fish and Wildlife bureau monitors the manatee population, and Florida is the only place in winter months that divers can interact with manatees in the wild.

If you’ve never swum with a manatee, I can tell you you’re missing out. It might sound cheesy or sentimental, but swimming with manatees is a rare and magical experience. As the unique opportunity of this time of year comes around, I can think of no better way to Dive Different. In volume three of our ongoing series, let me invite you to meet a manatee.

So what’s the big deal? What’s the secret that manatees hide? It’s that manatees in real life are exactly the idyllic gentle creatures you always secretly hoped they were. A manatee is a giant wild swimming gray teddy bear. When swimming with a dolphin, even a trained dolphin, there is the reality that if agitated, this thing could hurt you. With a manatee, the dynamic is completely different. There’s a very real sense of vulnerability on the animal’s side. As grazing animals, manatees have no sharp teeth to bite you, no claws to scratch. There’s more danger of a real cow kicking you than a sea cow harming you. The manatee’s primary defense, its large size, only adds to its image as a docile giant. There should be some sense of worry when you’re around something so large, but around manatees there isn’t. The effect is a sort of disarming charm.

In my long travels as a diver, I’ve experienced a vast array of emotions interacting with aquatic life. From the awe and primal terror of a shark, to childlike delight at watching bacteria phosphoresce in the moonlight. The emotional experience of swimming with manatees is completely unique and unparalleled. One of the primary reasons is that whenever swimming in the springs with manatees, there’s a high likelihood of direct contact. Manatees here  are willing to co-exist with humans. They like to be rubbed, and divers are allowed to engage them if the animal initiates contact.

Manatees in winter are in an intense state of energy conservation, and thus divers must take all precautions not to agitate them. SCUBA is prohibited, as the bubbles can scare the manatees, and the divers can only intermingle with them from the surface, swimming or snorkeling. Flash photography is also not allowed. When booking a trip, each excursion begins with an educational Manatee Manors video and paperwork to ensure the safety and proper treatment of the animals.

If any of this sounds restrictive, in practice it doesn’t feel like it. Less equipment makes you feel uninhibited and in-sync with the serene landscape of the springs, and knowing how to properly interact with the herds only serves to put both you and the animals more at ease, bettering the experience for both sides.

The three springs also offer different experiences depending on location. In our last few experiences, both Kings Spring and Jurassic Spring tended to have less visibility but more social animals. Each manatee has its own personality, choosing if and when to interact, making every trip out to the springs a distinctive experience. Some stay just at arms length and want to watch you, others approach giving you their back and almost asking for a nice back rub. Additionally we experienced juveniles who would come in and roll over to get their belly scratched. Three Sisters offered higher visibility but less interaction as once the manatees come here to rest and conserve energy. Don’t downgrade it in your plans if you were hoping for more interaction though, the heightened visibility allows for some wonderful views of the manatees in their natural habitat. You can take in the scope of the surroundings and get a look at the real day to day of manatee like as you watch from afar.

Herds tend to be more social and active in the early morning when they are really waking up for the day (I like to arrive as early as possible, going out with Birds Underwater Dive Center on the 5:30 or 7:00 a.m. tours), and then they sleep/nap more as the day goes on. The winter waters have an extra chill for us Florida divers, so you’ll want to plan accordingly with warm clothes for after the dive. Most boats will often offer hot chocolate (a tip I have carried on through my own winter dive adventures), which offers the perfect end to such an enchanting experience, with a dash of childhood and warmth.

“Manatees don’t tend to naturally congregate” states Ivan Vicente of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services. “They spread out during the summer months and generally only gather when forced to by thermo environmental changes, like the changing seasons.” This makes winter an ideal time to see them, and definitely a wonderful way to keep your aqatic legs stretched in the off season.

However, if you’re not up for planning a winter manatee experience, fear not. While the largest populations come in during winter months, there are a number of resident manatees that stay in the springs year round. It’s easy to make a weekend of a manatee trip, driving up the night before, staying at quaint local hotel, visit the manatees then stop by Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, or Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

I recommend taking a cue from the humble manatee and relaxing, go slow and take in the experience. It’s a great outing for all ages so you can round up your whole herd and bring everyone in an effort to Dive Different.