Soft Encounters for Manatee Adventures
Soft-In-Water Encounters: "Swimming with Manatees"
While visitors to the Crystal River Refuge are often surprised by the number of Florida/West Indian Manatees and are thrilled by the variety of surface behavior on display, what draws most people is the opportunity to enter the Manatees watery world to encounter them on a more personal level, an activity commonly referred to as "swimming with manatees." The Crystal River Refuge is part of the much larger Sanctuary for the Marine Mammals of Citrus County.
This Refuge is one of the few places where people are permitted to enter the water with manatees. As a Refuge, all activities within its bounds are subject to regulation, and there are very specific regulations that apply to the activity of swimming with the manatees as well. These regulations serve several purposes. They protect the manatees from harassment, and they also happen to provide the best possible chance of a lasting and meaningful encounter.
The foundation for a meaningful encounter with manatees The technique outlined by the regulations is referred to as a Soft-In-Water encounter. It is the only type of in-water encounter permitted in the refuge. The basis of a Soft-In-Water encounter is a passive, non-aggressive activity wherein the participants float quietly on the surface of the bay in the vicinity of a tolerant and cooperative manatee or manatees, and allow the natural curiosity of the manatee to draw it closer. Participants in a Soft-In-Water encounter may use mask, snorkel; but no SCUBA or rebreather equipment of any type is allowed. In a Soft-In-Water encounter there is no aggressive swimming or free dive. Participants are also required to stay together as a group.
So though it is commonly referred to as "swimming with manatees," there is little swimming involved! By entering the water quietly, and floating peacefully as a small group, the participants minimize any disturbance to the manatees, and then allow the manatee to choose to approach or not. It is an encounter in their environment, on their terms.
You Don't Approach the Manatee; the Manatee Approaches You:
To better explain it, consider that you cannot get close to a manatee, a manatee has to want to get close to you! Granted, with our technology, we do have the ability to zoom up in a boat and jump on a manatees head. That kind of behavior is obviously blatant harassment, a total violation of Refuge regulations, and a violation of the spirit of the Crystal River Refuge itself. There isn't a single operator in Crystal River that would even consider that approach for one second. But relevant to this discussion is the end result: a very unhappy manatee that will bolt for the horizon, leaving you swirling in its wake as you stare into now-empty water. Aggressive swimming has the same effect as zooming up in a boat: the sudden end of an encounter. But a Soft-In-Water encounter is a passive approach that puts the participants in proximity of an appropriate manatee and allows the manatee to set the distance, mood, tempo, and duration of the encounter.
They are not threatened by the approach, and therefore are much more comfortable in choosing to interact more closely. By staying together as a group, participants make it easier for the manatee to keep track of their location, which helps to keep the manatee calm and accepting. Since manatees are wild animals, there is no way to accurately predict the outcome of every opportunity, but using this non-aggressive technique in the past has resulted in manatee encounters that have lasted anywhere from minutes to hours.
Successful Manatee Encounters:
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Vital to the success of any in-water encounter is the initial selection and approach of an appropriate manatee. There is a wide range of behaviors exhibited by the manatees in the Crystal River Refuge, and many are not conducive to in-water encounters. A great deal of time is spent by the guides to find manatees that are likely to welcome interaction. Through years of experience observing and interpreting manatee’s behavior, your guides have developed the skills needed to successfully place you where you need to be for the greatest chance of success.
For example, manatees that are cruising or involved in rowdy behavior are not candidates for an in-water encounter, while non-resting manatees or surfaced manatees are. Experienced guides will not only explain and educate about the behaviors seen, but will also prevent participants from wasting time by trying to impose themselves on uninterested manatees, which is better for both the participants and the manatee. Sometimes guests may learn that the best way to successfully encounter a manatee is to not get in the water at all! Although this rarely happens.
Understanding the Manatee and Its Environment:
With that in mind, it is important to understand that the manatees of the Crystal River Refuge are wild animals in their natural environment, and are therefore impossible to predict with total accuracy. A journey to the Refuge is filled with opportunity, but as with any other wildlife activity, there may be times of greater or lesser activity, and not every excursion in the tenders will result in an in-water encounter, again this rarely happens but is possible. During the slower moments it helps to remember that this is a wilderness area, and full of potential surprises. Spend this time learning from your shipmates or sharing with them, or simply lost in thought, but always keep a curious eye to the ocean...