Posts Tagged ‘Manatees’

Manatees in Florida: a magical day

July 21, 2013

Until this month, I’d seen manatees at state parks, in research facilities, and in the wild at places they’re known to congregate. My favorite time with Florida’s “sea cows” was a few years ago, when Lina and I went kayaking in Crystal River, where manatees like to spend their winter near always-warm springs. We were on a tour with Save the Manatee Club, a fantastic nonprofit organization. It opposes “swim-with” manatee programs (as do I in general) and discourages humans from touching manatees unless the manatee initiates it. Manatees came near our kayaks, but we kept our hands inside.

My paddling pal and manatee whisperer

My paddling pal and manatee whisperer

I finally had my first fully wild and random manatee encounter recently, and it was a memorable one! And I have to admit that I chose to compromise the “no touch” philosophy. Here’s how it unfolded.

My pal Kelly (left), who rents one of our condo units at Indian Rocks Beach, offered to join me on a little kayak outing on the Intracoastal Waterway. I was glad she did, because later she told me she’s a manatee magnet. Wow, was she ever right!

We were paddling around enjoying the Sunday afternoon when I saw a gray blob. At first I thought it was a dolphin, but it just floated there and Kelly suggested it was a manatee. I’m used to seeing them later in the year, but I’ve since discovered they’re definitely around the Intracoastal in the summer.

Manatees got close to Lina and me in Crystal River in 2008

Manatees got close to Lina and me in Crystal River in 2008

We paddled in the direction of the blob, and sure enough, it was a manatee, plus two more. We heard them before we saw them, as they surfaced for air and exhaled above the water’s surface. They continued to come near us, or we’d follow them, and finally one came close enough that I touched its snout with my finger. I screamed with joy! And then it came back, swimming right alongside my kayak. I stroked its entire back, all slimy and rough, and then I screamed some more. I yelled out a few too many times “I pet a manatee!!!!!!!” Kelly of course wanted to do the same, so we kept looking for them, but after 10 minutes of not coming close to another one we finally gave up and headed to a nearby bird sanctuary island.

A minute later I heard Kelly scream with excitement. “Oh my God, oh my God!” A manatee was headed her way, and then it SURFACED under her kayak and she was AIRBORNE. Sorry for all the CAPS but I’m getting excited again thinking about it. I was about 25 feet away and it was like watching a movie. No way could this be happening! Her kayak wobbled as it rolled over the manatee’s back, then the friendly beast took off with a huge splash in Kelly’s direction. We were screaming and laughing with joy! “Dude, you rode a manatee!” I yelled. “Dude, I rode a manatee!” she replied. “Legally!” I added, in case anyone was listening. How big was it? I have no idea, but I do know that the average Florida manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs close to 1,200 pounds. Whoa!

Manatee swims near kayaker holding a camera underwater (photo Steve Sapienza)

Manatee swims near kayaker holding a camera underwater (photo Steve Sapienza)

A just-released report by the Mote Marine Laboratory (visit its aquarium in Sarasota) says manatees can feel water movements thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair — an ability that makes them one of the most touch-sensitive mammals on earth. So clearly that little escapade was no accident. That manatee knew what it was doing — playing around with one of its fans. While I can’t say I want to be airborne atop a manatee, and Kelly agreed that once is enough, it was a magical manatee moment we will never forget. Here’s hoping you get yours!

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Manatee mania in Florida

January 6, 2009
Mother and baby manatee as seen from bridge

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 ornament

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

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 manatee

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.