Snorkeling with manatees the right way in Homosassa

Manatee seen underwater

Homosassa and neighboring Crystal River are ground zero for manatee watching in the Florida winter; sea cows are drawn to their natural springs and lagoons. But once there it’s still hard to figure out where to go and how you want to see the manatees. The most direct experience, the one everybody gets excited about are the swim with the manatee tours. There’s controversy swirling around these tours and whether they annoy the manatees so much the marine mammals leave the safety of the spring area. I checked out two while visiting. Captain Mike’s Sunshine River Tours was by far the more interesting and exciting tour–and a lot nicer to the manatees and swimmers. I’ll do a full comparison later this week.

Manatees, I was disappointed to learn, do not break the usual rule of wildlife watching of dusk and dawn. The tour started at six and Captain Mike the owner told us to be there at 5:30 for donuts, coffee and instructional videos. We climb into our suits in changing rooms then watch the required Fish and Wildlife Service Manatee video. As one of Captain Mike’s four dogs walks the aisles looking for affection, the shop shows its own, even more specific video: every manatee encounter should be the manatee’s idea. Don’t let your excitement get the best of you and follow the manatee as it swims away. Only touch the manatee with one open palm. The don’t allow flippers because most people don’t know how to use them and they want to give every advantage to the manatee if it wants to get away.

Our captain of the boat was a Mike–one of three that work at the company, but not THE Captain Mike. Mike Birns is a former NOAA worker, EMT and dive instructor. He gave us his own manatee manners talk.

“One-third of manatees will be curious and come up and say hi,” he says. Let those manatees approach you and no one can fault you for touching them, he tells us with a nod to the controversy. To understand manatees, think for of cats than dogs, Mike explains. Like cats,  let them be fickle and decide when to treat you with interest. All the interaction has to be above the water. Don’t disturb (get within six feet of) a sleeping manatee. Be horizontal, not vertical. Don’t kick or put your feet on the bottom. If Mike sees someone harassing a manatee, he’ll ask them back on the boat and end their tour–something he’s done eight times in four years.

He knows some regular manatees and gossips about them with a local couple who regularly takes the tour. “Chester” is known for molesting female swimmers, groping them in inappropriate places. Chester is actually female but, Mike explains, like other primates and marine mammals, shows signs of being gay.

We see six or seven manatees swim by and he decides to drop anchor. He tells us that our inflatable dive vests we’ve inflated won’t let us sink or dive beneath the surface. I’m especially interested because–as I warmed the original Captain Mike–I can’t swim. I had hoped not to make an ass of myself in the water. I had hoped we’d end up in the shallow water. The water here is about 8 feet deep and 300 feet wide.

Let’s be clear: I am about as difficult a customer to get into the water as they come. But Captain Mike is reassuring–tells me how he also teaches people to dive and save lives. He gives me a rope to hang onto and eases me into the water, telling me to relax or I’ll get a sore back (he’s right).

My first venture out, I make it about 10 feet, get water in my mouth and reboard. Then I see everyone else engrossed in watching a manatee. I can’t just sit on the boat. My second time out I do more of what Mike says and relax and put my mask underwater. I see huge fish! I drop the rope without realizing and drift around. The other snorkelers are spread out in all directions, some clumped together and some drifting on their own. Mike gives us some guidance from the boat.

I see manatees drift by, come up for air and then, magically, one swims right towards me. The manatee stops and stares at me, maybe four feet away. Then he turns and swims away. I don’t get to touch him, but disappointment is the last thing on my mind. For the rest of the day I was thrilled, both at my manatee encounter and that, with Mike’s help, I had gone snorkeling.

I meander around the water until I’m cold and Mike blows a whistle. We get out of our freezing wet suits onboard and he hands over a hot chocolate to me in the changing stall.
On the way back Mike is excited about the other wildlife we see, pointing out dolphins and identifying and eagle and osprey sparring. Apparently Chester was among us. One of the locals tells me this excitement about wildlife is the reason they keep coming back: “Every time, I learn a little something new and it’s not always about manatees – sometimes about dolphins, osprey, eagles.” They’ve had dolphins approach and the kind of boaters who call manatees “speedbumps” converted to manatee lovers on the tour. The locals also prefer Sunshine Tours because it’s “based on what is best for the manatees, not for their pocketbooks.”
Mike Birns was just elected head of a local manatee guide association and says he seems to be pissing off both the far left and far right. He considers groups like Save the Manatees far left for considering a ban on touching manatees. The recession has cut business by 30% and he thinks a touching ban would cut it another 20%. He wants good conduct on the tours, but thinks touching–under the right rules and circumstances–is okay with the manatees. He’d also like more slow speed areas. The biggest threat to the manatees, he says, are the completely inexperienced boaters who can rent lots of fast watercraft in these waters.
After we leave the area around nine, a stream of other manatee tours ride in. They might have a great time, but I feel like I went home with the best possible manatee encounter. When I went on another manatee tour later in the week I confirmed that Captain Mike’s was far better–and that the competition can get sleazy. More on that later this week.

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