American Pro: A tour that practically guarantees you’ll touch a manatee–but neither of you will enjoy it

American Pro Dive's tour featured just one sleeping manatee. We'd wait for him to come up for air

Manatee lovers and biologists complain that some commercial manatee tours go too far in chasing, petting and just plain annoying sea cows. But for tourists who just want to see, swim with or maybe even touch a manatee, there’s no way to really know which ones they’re talking about. Asking locals, American Pro Diving Center came up again and again as a shop they consider a bit aggressive. So I decided to check it out.

First, let’s put the controversy in context. Manatee guide and activist Tracy Colson filmed tourists kicking and riding mantees–something operators say represents the worst of the worst behavior. Rules were tightened, but Colson and others still want a no touch policy. Petting manatees sounds benign–compared to boaters who plow over them–but if molested manatees leave the spring tourist areas, they could freeze to death. Of 767 manatees found dead last year, 279 froze compared to 83 hit by boats (most of the rest were undetermined). On the other hand, a lot of manatees don’t seem to mind people and even approach.

American Pro Diving Center is about the biggest outfit in the Homosassa/Crystal River area, with a handsome shop right on Route 44/19, complete with manatee sculpture, fun manatee door handles, scuba classes and excursions, a diving classroom, jet ski rental and pretty much the best souvenir shop.

I went President’s Day weekend, which turned out to be peak season. The 80 degree weather drew in more people even as it made it possible for manatees to leave the springs. Reservations were tight; I got on a 7 am tour that cost $52.50 ($29.50 for the tour, $13 for the wet suit rental and $10 for the snorkel, mask and fins). Once there, I switched to a 6:30, got a wet suit and changed into it right in the store. We watched the USFWS video, then our guide Zach warned us there would be no bathrooms on the boat and only skeevy ones at the dock and we’d have to drive ourselves over and pay $5 parking. My husband had just dropped me off, but another family volunteered to take me. He tells us no bananas on the boat, but other foods are okay.

Zach acts like a surfer dude and looks exactly like Sean Scott Williams of “Dude, Where’s My Car?” He’s a good-natured native of the area and wants to become a commercial diver. As we pull out he lays down some rules: only touch the manatee with one hand (so nobody thinks you’re riding it), don’t touch them on their face, “flipper pit” (area under the flipper where babies nurse) or tail (because they are neckless and can’t turn around quickly). “Other than those three places, you’ve still got like a good eight to ten feet of manatee to scratch on,” he says.

He explains the banana ban: “It’s been like hundreds and hundred of years if you bring a banana on a boat. And I never believed it until last year. I hold a record on my boat where everybody has got in and at least seen a manatee and, like, 90% of them probably come up and give ‘em a scratch. And I find manatees normally pretty fast. One day somebody brought a banana on the boat. I saw it. I thought ‘Yeah, okay, whatever,’ and I spent, no joke, two-and-a-half hours looking for a manatee.”

Fun story and a big contrast to my earlier cruise with Captain Mike, who emphasized over and over that any manatee touching should be the manatee’s idea and should be considered a magical event, not a guaranteed result. He drilled into us that the Forrest Gump saying that “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get” applied to manatee tours.

We head to an area called Jurassic Spring, which that state of Florida describes as a 100-foot cove, 800 feet east of a Hunter Spring Run, blocked off by a floating PVC pipe, that is a local swim area. It kind of looks a concrete indent into somebody’s backyard.

American Pro doesn’t have the fancy, inflatable dive vests that Captain Mike’s Sunshine River Tours had. I’m a pain-in-the-ass non-swimmer. Zach tells me to just hang onto a life jacket, but don’t put it over my head or I won’t be able to stick my head underwater. Or, if I really want to wear it, he offers, he can just push my head underwater at the right time. “When you’re out there and a manatee swims away, don’t worry,” he tells everyone. “I’ll always have a manatee with me. I’ll have two to three people come over at a time.”

“I need my swimmer,” he jokingly calls me. Because I’m holding the life jacket, I can’t really move myself. So, he drags me like a barge. Water gets in my mask. I cough. “Don’t freak on me,” Zach says. Later he says that water got in the mask because I was smiling–happens all the time when people see a manatee. I’m pretty sure it was just a crappy mask.

He drags me into the area and over a sleeping manatee. Just like that, I’m maybe five feet from a manatee. I watch quietly as little fish clean him off. Amazing.

Other snorkelers come. I try to get out of their way, but can’t maneuver. Zach warns me that I’m about to kick the manatee, who is coming up for air. The manatee is small and moves closer to the ropes. Zach says he’s about ready to get up for the day; he takes a breathe every six or seven minutes and each time moves further out of the area.

Zach asks who hasn’t touched a manatee? I’m among the minority who raises their hand. “Did you get to pet the manatee, sweetie?” a dad asks his daughter. Zach swims by and hauls me over the manatee. When it gets up swims I reach out and touch it. It’s slimy. That’s about it. There was no connection between us. It looks like he has fingerprints from touching. Another snorkeler complains of getting jostled by the crowd in the water.

An American Pro boat full of scuba divers pulls up and Zach herds us back to the boat. “Do you think we’ll be going somewhere else?” one of the dozen or so other snorkelers asks me? I assume so, we’ve only been out here maybe an hour. When we’re all on the boat, Zach goes by to check out an area called “the slide,” an even smaller concrete indent, but he’s checking for his next tour, not us. Some people think they see a manatee there, but Zach says there isn’t one and we head back.

We’re happy we got to see a manatee, but then it starts to sink that the extent of our adventure was to spend an hour snorkeling off somebody’s backyard, hovering over a single sleeping manatee, touch it as it comes up for air. There is quiet grumbling as we head back, passing six or seven manatee tour boats headed in. One of the competing driver quit American Pro because it was too “fast-paced” for him, Zach says. A fellow passenger wonders if they broke the rules by following the manatee around.

As we pull in Zach, points to a sign saying “I work for food tips” and says it’s true. Throughout the tour, Zach was filming with an underwater camera. He encourages us to watch the footage, which has already been set to music, in the crazy busy store. Price tag: $40. I decline. I ask Zach what he thinks of people who want to ban manatee touching. “It’ll never pass,” he says. “Crystal River would be nothing without manatees. It would kill the town. There’d be nothing but the power plant.”

Touching the manatee was about the least touching part of my manatee experience. It was like the wildlife equivalent of paying 50 cents–or in this case $50–to see a girl lift her shirt in a glass booth. My favorite part was a couple days earlier on Captain Mike’s when I was floating in the water by myself and a manatee swam up to me. I liked the banana on the boat story more than I liked touching the manatee. I hate when animal tour guides go overboard in the precautions, so you can hardly see or enjoy the wildlife. The American Pro Diving Center seemed overplay the touch part and underplay the connection people are seeking with these manatees.

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