Tulum, Mexico

From the 15th to the 31st of January 2013

At the Orlando airport, we were greeted by Damien who generously drove 2 hours to pick us up in a rental car. We met him last year in the Galapagos. He then told us about a manatee sanctuary in Florida and the possibility of approaching them in their natural habitat. Without expectation, but with a lot of eagerness, we decided to make a stop in order to understand why for the last 10 years, our French friend visited the manatees each year in January for one or two weeks.

The Crystal River is formed by forty freshwater springs, meeting in Kings Bay, and flowing 10 kilometers (6 miles) away into the Gulf of Mexico. Kings Bay is one of the few places where it is permitted to swim with the manatees. These mammals who can weight over 1300 kilos (3000 lbs)and measure up to 4 meters (13 feets), spend their time eating algae in coastal areas and in rivers. To avoid hypothermia in winter, hundreds of manatees congregate in the crystalline springs which have a year-round temperature of 22 degrees Celsius.

We arrived late afternoon in Crystal River, and we could not wait any longer. We rented canoes and paddled to meet the manatees in the Three Sisters Springs. While there are usually dozens of manatees in the sanctuary, none of them were there. Damien said this is the first time in ten years that we have no manatees. The air temperature was unusually warm for being winter and manatees prefered to feed in the Gulf of Mexico waters rather than relax in the springs. The canoe ride was beautiful. Branches of trees reflected in the transparent spring water and the sunset was awesome.


Two days later, a cold spell arrived. At sunrise, the temperature was only 10 degrees (50 fahrenheit). After the 20 minute canoe ride, we were frozen, but it was worth it. In the springs, manatees arrived one by one looking for warmth. And to our amazement, not only were they looking for warm water, they decided to look for warm human contact as well. They slept huddled against each other on the sandy bottom, surfacing to breathe every 10 minutes while they were still sleeping. When they weren't sleeping, they were giving us a tender looks with their little eyes. Then, they would approach us by rolling on their side, waiting to be petted on the belly. One of them embraced me with his two fins and rested his head on my shoulder. For a couple of minutes, we hugged, slowly rotating while giving me time to catch my breath at the surface. This was a very touching moment of tenderness, shared with a wild marine mammal. I could only imagine this moment in one of my most improbable dreams. Thanks to Damien for sharing this unique experience with us.


Unfortunately, ten days with manatees allowed us to realize the impact of humans on this endangered species. Despite the regulation on navigation speed in the Kings Bay area, almost all the manatees we saw showed injuries or scares due to accidents with propellers. Even if boats are not allowed inside the springs, they come with groups and park a few meters away from sanctuaries. All this activity creates a lot of movement for a place where manatees are resting. Ideally, access to the manatees should be limited to canoes. Non motorized transportation is more in tune with this natural environment and allows non invasive observation of wildlife, including dolphins, Florida turtles, and a variety of birds.

A few kilometers away from Crystal River, we went to Rainbow River, a huge spring at the origin of a river with crystal clear waters. Here, we had the chance to admire soft shell turtles, all kinds of fish swimming against the current, and to our surprise, even an otter.


After being in Crystal River for a week, we rented a car and visited one of Aless's uncles in the Tampa area before driving to Key West, which is a series of islands and connected by bridges. It is one of the few towns where it is pleasant to walk or bicycle. We joined Damien and his friend Marc aboard a dive boat in order to reach a nearby reef. Since it was a shallow area, we decided to discover it snorkeling. Despite a rather rough sea, we found lots of nice little things, such as black tip sharks, a nurse shark, sting rays and large barracudas. Being difficult to find a room for less than 200 dollars a night in Key West, we left our friends and drove to Key Largo where we wanted to doa wreck dive.

The Spiegel Grove, a ship built in 1955, was intentionally sunk in 2002. Before the planned sinking date, the ship sank upside down. After several weeks with tug assistance, they were able to sink it completely, but it ended up on its side. Three years later, Hurricane Dennis has righted the 155 meters (508 feet)ship. The Spiegel Grove is now the skeleton of an artificial reef. At a depth of 40 meters (130 feet), the wreck is covered with sponges and coral. A great diversity of fish can be found in the corridors through which we could venture. We did our second dive on a beautiful site called Molasses Reef. Visibility was better and underwater life was very abundant and colorful. Moray eels were swimming in open water, we could admire purple sea fans, huge barracuda, a giant grouper and all sorts of hidden schools of fish on the reef.


We left the Keys for the Everglades. A hundred years ago, the Everglades were a 160 kilometers (100 miles) river fed by rainwater. In order to control flooding and to reclaim the land, dikes and canals were built. After years of drainage and diversions, a project to restore the Everglades to its original state is underway. Today, this very delicate ecosystem depends on manual control of the water level. If there is too much water in the wrong season, alligator nests are flooded and wading birds can't find concentrated food sources for feeding young. In contrast, with too little water, small aquatic organisms that anchor the food web can't be produced.


The various infrastructures between the park entrance near Homestead and Flamingo allowed us to observe this unique ecosystem which is home to both the alligators in the freshwater and the crocodiles in the coastal region. A few kilometers after entering the park, the Anhinga Trail was a nice place to observe a good amount of sunbathing alligators, a great variety of birds, including the wood stork, cormorant, and the Anhinga itself which is a cousin of the cormorant. To have a better feeling for the Everglades, we should have rented a canoe, packed sufficient food and water, and paddled for a few days, through the heart of flora and fauna. Due to a lack of equipment, we left this idea open to our future visit.

We had only one thing in mind for our last 3 days in Florida, returning to the manatees. We traveled the 650 kilometers (400 miles) back to Crystal River in order to spend a few more wonderful moments with the "sea cows", before driving back to Miami, to catch our flight to... THE GALAPAGOS !

See the album "Florida, USA - January 2013"