Tuesday, September 2, 2014 · 5:10 a.m.

Field Excursions: Tennessee Aquarium offers manatee weekend adventure

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The main threats to manatee survival include collisions with watercraft and destruction and degradation of habitat caused by widespread development throughout their range. (Photo: Tennessee Aquarium)

Each January, the Tennessee Aquarium sponsors a whirlwind weekend of wildlife fun in northern Florida. In its 16th year, this family-friendly, two-day excursion offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get up close and friendly with the endangered West Indian manatee. 

Snorkel with the Manatees

Sponsored by the Tennessee Aquarium

When: Friday, Jan. 25-Sunday, Jan. 27

For: Families with children ages 8 and older

Cost: $410 per adult, double occupancy; $380 per child (8-12) sharing with one adult; $340 per child (8-12) sharing with two adults for Tennessee Aquarium members (add $25 per person for nonmembers)

For more information: Click here

Part education, part outdoor adventure and part vacation, the manatee trip squeezes a world of outdoor adventure and education into two days: snorkeling on the pristine Rainbow River; wildlife viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park; and watery encounters with manatees at Crystal River, the only place in North America where people can legally swim and interact with the manatees in the wild.

The only requirement of participants (ages 8 and older): proficient swimming experience, wetsuit and snorkel gear rental, and a sense of adventure.

“This trip offers an evenly paced weekend of adventure and interacting with wildlife,” said Tennessee Aquarium senior aquarist Rob Mottice, who has led the manatee trip for 16 years. “It’s a great trip for those who love outdoor adventures, especially anyone oriented toward water and wildlife.”

Manatees: Gentle giants of the ocean
The highlight of the trip for most people, Mottice said, is snorkeling with the manatees at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, which preserves the last unspoiled and undeveloped manatee habitat at the headwaters of the Crystal River in Florida.

West Indian manatees are large aquatic mammals with bodies that taper to a paddle-shaped tail. They have two flippers, and their head and face are wrinkled with whiskers on the snout. The average adult manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs between 800 and 1,200 pounds.

West Indian manatees are found in freshwater rivers, estuaries and in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Large concentrations are located in the Crystal River and Wakulla Springs areas of Central and North Florida. West Indian manatees can also be found in the coastal and inland waterways of Central America and along the northern coast of South America. 

In the United States, West Indian manatees are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as well as the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978.

A chance to get up close and personal with manatees is approaching in January. (Photo: Plantation on Crystal River)

In the past 10 years, the West Indian manatee population has fluctuated between 2,400 and 3,000 individuals in Floridian waters. The main threats to their survival include collisions with watercraft and destruction and degradation of habitat caused by widespread development through their range.

“Population biologists feel that the West Indian manatee population is just large enough to sustain itself,” Mottice said. “Historically, there were probably thousands and thousands more than there are today.”

The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida was established in 1983 specifically for the protection of the endangered West Indian manatee. The refuge preserves the warm water springs that provide critical habitat for manatee populations that migrate there each winter.

The adventure awaits
The manatee expedition will leave Chattanooga by motor coach on Friday, Jan. 25 at 9:30 p.m., heading south through the night to begin the adventures Saturday morning. Although an overnight bus trip doesn’t sound like much fun to most people, in this case, it’s just part of the journey. The good news is that the trip is purposely limited to 20 people, which allows for plenty of room to spread out and sleep while heading south.

The bus ride ends at 6 a.m. Saturday morning at the Hilltop Restaurant in Williston, Fla., just in time for a homemade breakfast that is worth the wait, according to Mottice.

And so begins the adventure. After breakfast, it’s off to the gently flowing Rainbow River in Denellon, Fla., to don wetsuits for a naturalist-led morning snorkel trip. The Rainbow River is spring-fed and maintains a constant water temperature of 73 degrees, and the river’s pristine water supports a wide variety of fish, wildlife and vegetation.

“The water is crystal-clear and full of fish and turtles and long strands of turtle grass,” Mottice said. “There is a gentle current, so you can float downstream or turn around and swim upstream to look around. The river ranges from 5 to 6 feet deep, but the bottom quickly shallows along the shoreline.”

The next stop on Saturday afternoon is Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, where West Indian manatees can be observed from the park's underwater observatory in the main spring. The park showcases native Florida wildlife and is one of the few places where visitors can see endangered West Indian manatee, whooping cranes, Florida Key deer and red wolves.

Saturday night, the group will lodge at the Plantation on Crystal River in Crystal River, Fla. The inn is surrounded by the natural springs of King's Bay, one of the largest aquifers in the state and home to more than 400 West Indian manatees that migrate each year to the warmth of the springs.

Sunday’s manatee encounter launches from the Plantation on Crystal River’s dive shop, where guests board pontoon boats and head toward the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, where manatees congregate. The areas around the springs have been designated manatee sanctuaries and are closed to all humans from Nov. 15 through March 31. However, visitors can view and interact with the manatees in their natural setting outside of those sanctuary boundaries from boats or within the water.

Although it is illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal, if the manatees come to you outside the sanctuary, you are permitted to touch them.

Snorkeling with the manatees at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is one highlight of the Tennessee Aquarium's January weekend travel adventure to Florida. (Photo: Staff)

Manatees are known for being friendly, and they seem to enjoy the voluntary interaction, Mottice said.

“One year, a manatee calf came right up to us and was rolling over and vocalizing because it wanted its belly rubbed,” he said. “He liked it and kept coming back to us.”

The true benefit, however, is their impact on the human heart.

“There are very few places in the world that offer this type of interaction with an endangered species,” Mottice said. “It is a great experience for everyone—especially kids. Who knows, it could be that one of the kids from these trips will grow up and impact protection of this species.”

After spending a couple hours in the water with the manatees, the excursion will come to an end. Another bus ride—which includes a quick stop at a renowned Florida fruit stand—will get the group home at approximately 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 27.

The cost of the manatee excursion for Tennessee Aquarium members is $410 per adult, $380 per child (8-12) sharing a room with one adult and $340 per child (8-12) sharing a room with two adults. Nonmembers should add $25 per person or join as an aquarium member. The price includes transportation by motor coach, one-night lodging, one buffet breakfast and all snorkeling excursions. Additional expenses include five meals, the rental of a wetsuit (5 mil) and snorkeling gear from a local dive shop, as well as spending money.

For more information, click here.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge. This Christmas, she is asking Santa for a book publishing deal and some new Chaco sandals. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.

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