Diving Report: Swimming in a Winter Wonderland

Kerry Freeland

Every year around this time I try to make a pilgrimage to the big bend of Florida. As the Gulf of Mexico cools down, the 70-degree temperatures of the fresh water springs that abound in cave country seem very appealing. This area of our nation is inundated with first magnitude springs that burst out the earth, first into a pool of crystal-clear water with a white sandy bottom, and then on to their respective rivers and bays. These pools teem with bream, bass, turtles, and of course my favorite chunky mermaid, the West Indian Manatee. These gentle giants seek refuge from the colder temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico by heading upstream to these pools where the water remains a constant, tolerable environment for them to spend the winter. The manatee will head out from these springheads in the morning to forage, never wandering too far from the springs which keep these mammals warm.

I like to take people to Crystal River and experience these massive, once endangered, often curious denizens of the aquatic realm. The folks I take there always love it. The manatee are the draw to get them there. The reality is there is so much more to see than just the manatee. The day usually starts out somewhat surreal. We leave early in the morning. The boat glides across the protected waterway, steam rising from the difference in the cooler air temperature and the warmer spring fed water. You will often see a dozen variety of birds as we head out. A bald eagle tolerates our approach of his perch on the bank of the spring for a while, only to land on a bough opposite, still only yards away. A glance up into the Spanish moss-covered tree tops, reveals a flock of black vultures with their wings spread to gather the sun’s rays. A very ominous greeting for my group of adventurers. We move on keeping an eye out for the telltale “footprint” of a manatee on the surface of the water. Once we spot the circular sign left by their tail we can tell where they are congregated. The vessel is then anchored, and we slip quietly into the water so as not to disturb the manatee. Our skin-divers will take up a position where we can see them but do not enter their midst. What’s next is pure magic. Watching these thousand-pound plus behemoths gracefully move while they graze, nurse, and scratch is really something to see. Stay where you are and shoot photos, eventually one of them will come over to investigate. On occasion manatee will approach you and want your attention. I have seen a variety of uninitiated interactions from manatee. Sometimes they will approach the boat when you first arrive, waiting for people to enter. You will swim off getting photos with one, to come back and find another “flossing” on the anchor line. I had one friendly manatee “grab” my calf with her flipper and then slowly roll in the water. I got the message and scratched her the whole time we rolled. As docile and friendly as they are, it is easy to see how they became endangered in the first place. Yes, indeed this is a magical time of the year, one that should be shared. One does not need be a strong snorkeler to enjoy these trips. If you can put your face in the water with a mask, you will see the manatee in their environment, and so much more. These often-remote spaces around these fresh water springs are stunning. These places are to me, what old Florida is, and it is beautiful.

Contact Dive Pros for information on our scheduled manatee trips or to get the information you need to do an excursion yourself.

Dive Pros
7203 West Highway 98 * Pensacola FL 32507
Phone: (850) 456-8845 * Fax: (850) 456-0025