If you’re lucky, he might go so far as to use his flippers to hug your arm. Prepare to squeal with a mix of delight and disgust at the three fingernails he has on each, an evolutionary remnant of his land-dwelling ancestry. More closely related to the elephant than the seal, manatees use their boney flippers like arms to help them crawl along the seafloor or riverbed, scooping food into their mouths. Eating ten percent of one’s body weight, let alone a manatee's, in plants is an ambitious goal indeed.
When you get too cold in the water (or realize you’re just kind of tired of this), you will climb back in your boat, take off your wetsuit, and ride in a van to the souvenir shop. There, you can select from a variety of t-shirts, baseball caps, stuffed animals, and other small trinkets that proudly announce, “I Swam with the Manatees in Crystal River.”
You may also be given the opportunity to purchase underwater photos documenting your adventure and will likely pay whatever price is demanded in order to truly be able to treasure this memory forever — and show it off to your friends, family, and colleagues.
You’ll explain to them how West Indian Tee-Tees are threatened by habitat destruction and human activity. You’ll declare it a mystery where they go to survive hurricanes, but for the most part they do (save for a small handful stranded by storm surges). You’ll repeat the phrase, nobody really knows how smart they are, over and over.
Whomever you happen to be talking to will smile, nod, and slowly back away — especially when you get to the part about the fingernails. But it won’t bother you one bit, because who needs humans when you have mastered the art of interspecies aquatic interaction? You have swum with the manatees, goddammit. You have already won.