Photos by River Ventures

How to Swim with Manatees

When it occurs to you that swimming with manatees is a thing you can do but somehow never have, immediately book a flight to Florida. Touring the natural habitat of these aquatic mammals is within a couple hours’ drive from Orlando.

Although it’s possible any time of year, winter is prime swimming-with-sea-cows season. Despite their rotund frames, these hefty creatures have not been blessed with an insulating layer of blubber and therefore not well equipped for the cold. During the winter months, they travel inland from the bays to huddle together in natural spring water, which remains around 72 degrees year-round. (It’s worth nothing that what makes a comfortable water temperature for a 1,500-pound manatee will still seem pretty fucking cold to you, even in your wetsuit.)

If you book with a reputable company, you will watch an educational video about how to respectfully interact with the sirens of the sea, who were famously mistaken for mermaids by colonial explorers. It’s essentially an education in active consent that everyone should be aware of, regardless of species: Do not approach a manatee; let it approach you. Do not pursue or follow the manatee. Do not touch the manatee unless it initiates the interaction, in which case you may touch it using one open hand.

Once you head out on your pontoon tour boat, you’ll start to see ominous 11-foot blobs in the shallow waters, grazing on the riverbed. Try referring to them (at least in your own head) with adorable diminutives, like “mannies” or “tee-tees.” This will calm your nerves about getting in murky water with what is effectively a one-ton, sea-grass Roomba.

1,500-pound lady manatee

The mannies can kick up quite a bit of silt, which may limit your visibility to a few feet or less. Once you’re actually in the water, your job will be to stay as still as possible, floating at the surface in a snorkel and mask, waiting for them come to you. Pro tip: prepare yourself for their sheer size and apparent disregard for personal space. You might suddenly find yourself six inches from a giant, whiskery grill and set of flared nostrils surfacing to breathe. Try not to act startled.

The thing about tee-tees is that they’re skittish — they don’t care much for noise or splashing. Should you be late to realize that there’s one directly beneath you and it’s now rising out of the water like Godzilla with you on its back, resist the urge to say “Fuuuuuuuuuck,” even quietly to yourself. You don’t want to scare off a nearby calf who might be planning to float curiously toward you like a space puppy, circling a few times before stopping a mere inch from your hand.

Nuh-uh, you might think, I’m not falling for that.

You will have already internalized the rules against harassing wildlife. But you’ll soon realize, like every dense love interest in a rom-com eventually does, that this little guy is putting himself out there — and he’s just what your jaded heart needs. So you lift your hand out, ET-style, and he swims by, his algae-dotted skin rough and slimy against your open palm.

5-month old friendly calf (known as “Peanut”)

If you’re lucky, he might go so far as to use his flippers to hug your arm. Prepare to squeal with a mix of delight and disgust at the three fingernails he has on each, an evolutionary remnant of his land-dwelling ancestry. More closely related to the elephant than the seal, manatees use their boney flippers like arms to help them crawl along the seafloor or riverbed, scooping food into their mouths. Eating ten percent of one’s body weight, let alone a manatee’s, in plants is an ambitious goal indeed.

When you get too cold in the water (or realize you’re just kind of tired of this), you will climb back in your boat, take off your wetsuit, and ride in a van to the souvenir shop. There, you can select from a variety of t-shirts, baseball caps, stuffed animals, and other small trinkets that proudly announce, “I Swam with the Manatees in Crystal River.”

You may also be given the opportunity to purchase underwater photos documenting your adventure and will likely pay whatever price is demanded in order to truly be able to treasure this memory forever — and show it off to your friends, family, and colleagues.

You’ll explain to them how West Indian Tee-Tees are threatened by habitat destruction and human activity. You’ll declare it a mystery where they go to survive hurricanes, but for the most part they do (save for a small handful stranded by storm surges). You’ll repeat the phrase, nobody really knows how smart they are, over and over.

Whomever you happen to be talking to will smile, nod, and slowly back away — especially when you get to the part about the fingernails. But it won’t bother you one bit, because who needs humans when you have mastered the art of interspecies aquatic interaction? You have swum with the manatees, goddammit. You have already won.

All photos River Ventures

Sarah Kasbeer lives in New York city. More of her writing can be found at sarahkasbeer.com.