I had seen them before in other Florida places. The one I saw from a few feet above was cruising the byways of a marina. Tapered at the front with a squashed-in face and tapered in the back with one fin that propelled it soundlessly, the manatee had a girth that would have required holding hands with several others to encircle it. It was huge, but maybe because it moved slowly and seemingly effortlessly, it seemed loveable, huggable. Crystal River, Florida, however, offered more than the opportunity of standing on a dock and looking down at one; it promised the chance to swim with manatees.
Crystal River is dotted with companies that offer the manatee experience. The spouse had booked us with one in advance over the internet, which was fortunate since many of the time slots were already filled. Eight or ten of us adventurers congregated in a little building a few blocks from the water’s edge at the appointed time for an introductory lecture and film about manatees and how to behave in the water with them, lessons that continued on the boat from the boat captain John and the in-water guide Shelley.
The half-ton mammals had once nearly disappeared from the Florida habitat. The full-grown ones have few natural predators in the sea, but humans have harvested them for food and run over them with their motor boats. Now, thankfully, Florida is working to preserve them, and their numbers are increasing.
In spite of their blubbery appearance, the half-ton animals have little fat. Instead, their digestive system is large and takes up a large part of their body cavity. The animals eat up to 15% of their weight each day, feeding on sea grasses and other vegetation on the bottom of coastal waters and brackish streams. Manatees do not see well, and they generally move slowly. As a result, they do not easily get out of the way of fast-moving boats. It is too common to see a manatee back scarred by a boat propeller.
We were cautioned not to attempt to touch one, but that we could put out a hand and a manatee might swim up and touch it. We also were cautioned not to stir up sediment on the bay’s bottom so that the water’s visibility would be as good as possible.
Without layers of fat, manatees are not well insulated. They physically deteriorate in water below sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. The streams and bays of Crystal River have many springs whose waters flow at a constant seventy-two degrees throughout the year, and the manatees are drawn to these life-affirming springs when other nearby waters are colder. We were there in March, which was the end of the Crystal River manatee season because the Gulf and inland waters were warming up. We were told that we would no doubt see a few of the creatures, but in cooler months dozens or more would congregate in one of the fresh-water springs that surround the bay.
After our introductory lessons, we were all handed a wetsuit and shooed off to dressing rooms. After getting into swimming gear, which was hard when zippers were in back, we, feeling a bit conspicuous in our new attire, trundled into a van for a short ride to a dock where we clambered onto a pontoon boat. As we slowly (“no wake zone”) went out into the bay, we did that tourist thing of announcing where we were from. I don’t remember all the travelers, just the bartender and his sister and mother, a mother and two high school girls from a small town in northern Wisconsin, and surprisingly, a sixtyish couple from… Hawaii. She explained why they were vacationing in Florida—perhaps relatives. It did seem odd. When either the spouse or I announced that we were from Brooklyn, we both felt that the captain tensed, became hostile and a bit snide about New York City. But charm (the spouse), wit (both of us), and self-deprecatory humor (me) won him over so he treated us just as if we were normal tourists from, for example, one of the Greenvilles.
Shelley and John told us that manatees swimming near the surface made a distinctive swirl that could be spotted on the water. Okay, if you say so. They could discern this a whole lot better than the rest of us, but they would direct our gaze, and we could pretend to see a few of the animals as they surfaced. Finally the engine was cut and an anchor was gently placed in the water. Our guides had spotted a number of manatees nearby. We were to quietly get out of the boat with mask, snorkel and supporting float (“the noodle”) and arrange ourselves on the noodle in a “dead man’s float,” so as not to disturb the creatures nearby. Here is where I confess my ineptitude. It turns out I can’t negotiate breathing with a snorkel. Had I continued trying, it was clear that I was going to drown myself. So I mostly stood quietly in the water (it was quite shallow), and one manatee swam soundlessly past my leg. The spouse assumed the dead man’s position easily but couldn’t seem to find a beast. Shelly, however, took her by the hand and brought her to several of them, including a mother and calf. The spouse held out her hand as instructed, and, after a questioning look to Shelly, touched one. She said it felt like an elephant. After seeing the manatees, the guides took us to two springs where the water bubbled up through the sand from some subterranean source creating crystalline pools so clear that you could see twenty feet to the bottom. After our adventures, we went back to the dock and then to change back into our civvies. I was happy to have seen a manatee a few feet from me, but mostly I was embarrassed by my ineptitude. The spouse, on the other hand, who had been unsure whether she wanted to do this adventure, was high from the experience. I was pleased at her smile and her happy babbling about the manatees as we went back to the hotel.
(continued April 14)