Mother and calf manatee as seen from a bridge in Crystal River, FL
“Oh how beautiful, oh baby. Hey baby.”
I cracked up when I heard a fellow kayaker say that to a manatee. These sea creatures are huge, with wrinkly noses that look like a elephant’s snout without a trunk. From above, their bodies look like, well, giant floating turds. But they do have that “hey, baby” effect on people. On Wessel and me, too.
We couldn’t get enough of the mammals last month in Florida, when we went to Citrus County, Fla., on the Gulf of Mexico, which could be renamed Manateeland, USA. Crystal River/Kings Bay is the winter home to hundreds of manatees. When the weather cools down, manatees, which need warm water to survive gather at the natural springs in the Crystal River area, which maintain a water temperature of 72 degrees (22°C) year round.
Manatee as Christmas tree decoration
We saw manatee signs, trinkets, mailboxes, license plates, statues, Christmas decorations, and, of course, the celebrities themselves. We watched rehabilitated captive manatees being fed (they’re herbivores) at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, viewed groups of them, often a mother and calf, from a bridge in Crystal River, and were surrounded by them during our “Do Not Disturb” kayak trip through Save the Manatee Club. Having a manatee glide right under your kayak just below the water is quite the experience!! The average adult manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs between 800 and 1,200 pounds.
Matt Clemons (standing) during kayak trip convinced Diane to not swim with manatees
Our trip was led by one of the state’s top manatee advocates, Matt Clemons of Aardvark’s Florida Kayak Company, which donates 50 percent of the cost of the trip to Save the Manatee Club. In some ways, the manatees are being loved to death. There are now a slew of outfitters that take people out to snorkel around them, which means a couple dozen humans are descending on a pod of manatees. Some people say that the playful creatures initiate touching and appreciate human contact. Others say that touching manatees, even when the manatee goes first, upsets their natural balance in many ways unnoticed by the average person. Worse, they say, some snorkelers all out harass the endangered species, chasing them, blocking them, and even trying to ride them. I’ll be writing about this more in my upcoming story about them for the Boston Globe.
As I told Matt, I was annoyed with him because before I started reading up on the issue on his and the Save the Manatee website, I was very excited to “swim with the manatees.” Though I’d wanted to do it for years, I did have a nagging feeling all the while that it seem quite right. Matt and others confirmed that hunch, damn them!
Diane `swims` with the manatees after all
Actually, Wessel and I did end up swimming with the manatees, but not really in the conventional way, as you can see here. We also “adopted” Lily, a lovely lady who lives in Blue Spring State Park in Orange City. We didn’t make it to visit her this trip, because I needed to spend time with human relatives, but it’s on the list. If you’re interested in seeing manatees, here are some great spots to go in Florida. Just view from afar, please! And click here to see more of Wessel’s amazing manatee photos.