Swimming With Manatees
While swimming with manatees can seem mutually rewarding, the practice remains controversial. "It basically tames the manatees, and they start looking to humans for some kind of gratification," says Bonnie Abellera, who oversees the manatee education program for the Bureau of Protected Species Management in Tallahassee. Manatees might not realize that some people can be cruel, despite individual fines of up to $100,000 and/or one year in prison for violating federal protection laws.
Abellera particularly discourages swimming with a mother and calf, which typically remain side by side for up to two years. "If they get separated, calves don't know where the warm weather sites are or what type of food to eat," she explains. "If you see a mother and a calf, avoid them."
Even touching a Florida manatee is illegal, according to the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission. But Chuck Underwood, Public Affairs Officer for the Jacksonville office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, takes a more liberal view of manatee encounters. "We do not endorse chasing a manatee or separating a calf from the mother. The officials also encourage people not to grab a manatee. "If the animal initiates the action and you remain passive, right now we still support that," says Underwood. "For people to appreciate the resource, there has to be some interaction allowed."
My rendezvous ends too soon, when the mother calls her calf to her side with a high-pitched squeal. He squeaks back, grumbling and dragging his flippers like a willful child, before finally disappearing in a cloud of dense white sand.
To swim with the manatees, contact American Pro Diving Center at 800-291-3483 or www.americanprodiving.com. Contact the Citrus County Tourist Development Council at 800-587-6667 or www.visitcitrus.com. For more information on Florida, contact Visit Florida at 888-735-2872 or www.flausa.com.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication