It’s early morning; the water is a mirror, the air is fresh; but underwater it’s murky, nothing but churned up sediment. The only thing in my line of vision is my son’s heels. I want to keep my head down, not keep checking how far we are from the boat, so I follow those. I am vaguely aware, from time to time, of the other people in the water, but never more than a glimpse of a flipper.
More murkiness. It goes on. Part of me wants to give up (I realize later that everyone except us had called it a day), but a much bigger part wants to go on ….. and on. I sense that we are heading back to the boat, and I know that this isn’t our private trip, but we go slow.
Then, without warning, something brushes against my leg, and glancing down I meet the enquiring gaze of a young manatee. I stifle the urge to cry out, and I freeze, spread eagled on the surface. We have been instructed not to make noise, not to startle these docile creatures, and although if approached we might touch them, instinct says not to. He swims under my belly, as if enjoying the contact, and over to my son. He seems to nuzzled up to him, and then retreats to the shadow below which is his mother. Fleetingly, charmingly, I have just lived out a dream.
My dearest wish for this road trip to Central and South Florida I’m on is to see manatees close up, in their own environment, possibly to swim with them. And that just happened in a magical kind of way…..they came to us. They seemed to want the contact.
Clambering aboard the boat, I want to cry. The others had watched the magic; had, actually, been able to spot the mother and baby before we did, and had been trying to signal us. I am overwhelmed. When we stop a little way further down the river, where another manatee has been spotted by another boat, I can’t go in the water. I don’t want to spoil the magic of that very personal encounter by sharing it with 15 or 16 other people. Some of whom are careless of our very strict instructions not to touch, disturb or follow the manatees. I need to breathe … slowly, listen to the birds, watch the mangroves and the ripples on the water.
We are in Crystal River on Florida’s Gulf Coast, probably the most famous manatee spotting site in the state, and the only place where you are legally able to swim with them, or drift, as the advice says, under these controlled conditions. The river is fed by 30 natural springs, which feed warm water into the system, which is what brings manatees here in winter. It’s May, so not prime sighting season.
These are gentle, almost surreal creatures, and seem to be their own worst enemies. Although, we are told, there are times when they can move with some speed, for the most part they seem simply suspended in the water, or slowly moving with stately grace, nosing up to breathe every five minutes or so, making them sitting ducks for boat propellers despite both Federal and State protection. From time to time there are attempts by speed merchant Sunday boaters to have them taken off the Endangered Species Act, so they become a political pawn too.
I fell in love with one 23 years ago in the Living Seas in Disney’s Epcot Resort. I’d never even heard of them, and I realize now that I wasn’t unusual. This hulk with an improbable figure was hanging around a tank nibbling lettuce, think a kind of benign Jabba the Hutt, with soulful eyes and a whiskery snout instead of the grotesque face, and a swish of a tail – think mermaids. In fact, rumor has it that the mermaid legends rose from those tails, mistaken by sailors from the First World as being some enchanted human, condemned to life in the ocean, whose purpose was to lure others to their death on rocky coastlines.
Since, especially in the winter months, they hug the coastlines, seeking the warmth of estuaries, it’s easy to see how ignorant men could have made that mistake. These are West Indian manatees and their patch is centered around the Florida shoreline, although they range further away during summer along both the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic coast. They are found in Central America and even parts of South America too, but less frequently, and have cousins in the West African manatees around Senegal and Gambia, the Amazon manatees and the dugongs of Asia.
Perhaps it was the languid, laid back posture, but I was hooked at first sight. So before we went to the coast to see them “in the wild” we stopped in the Living Seas for nostalgia’s sake. There are two manatees there now, with shocking. boat propeller injuries, one is missing most of its tail. Obviously, not candidates to return to the wild, so here they float, educating us about their kind, proof of how careless of the natural world man can be.
We’d had a close encounter one evening a few days earlier, leaving Captiva Island further down the coast on a “sunset cruise,” the captain had spotted a “footprint” on the surface of the water as we left the marina, but it hadn’t come up again for air in the time it took us to pass. I’d been surprised there by the speeds of some boats around us, but our crew had told us they weren’t exceeding speed limits, although there had been numerous signs around the marina warning that it was a “manatee zone.”
Our trip this day doesn’t include any more manatee sightings, but does include a third stop, down the river inland, to Three Sisters Spring, the most famous of those which feed into the river. It’s another bit of magic, even though we see no more manatees. Swimming from the boat we enter through the neck of an inlet, which opens out into a watery glade. Taking my head out of the water, I see a circle of mangroves around the pool we’ve entered. They filter the sunshine, and reflections of the ripples on the water dance across their foliage. It could be a scene from “Avatar,” and the word enchanted crosses my mind. My world melds to a shimmer of pastel blues and greens.
Below, colorful fish weave among those famous mangrove roots. In the center of the pool, a fallen tree rises from a crater, and those shafts of sunlight filter down, sparkling on the white sand bottom. I feel as if I’m drifting through a beautiful dream. It utterly makes up for no more manatees this day.
As I stood at the top of the boat’s steps, clutching my wee Lumix camera I made an unusual decision for me. I slipped it back into my bag. It was a wise decision, as it turned out. I wouldn’t have used it. I wanted to savor any moments I got with a manatee, and I did! Sometimes it is best to leave the camera behind – that said, I am happy that my son, Guy, took his, so I have backups for my memories. This is the first time I’ve ever published a post entirely with pictures which are not mine…..and happy to do so – Thank you, Guy and Rachael!
We went on this excursion with Crystal Lodge Dive Center. I didn’t ask for any discounts, and didn’t even tell them I was going to write a blog post until the following day, when I went to confirm their website URL, so when I say I highly recommend them, you know I’ve not been coerced into saying this in any way! We were road tripping south and central Florida and stayed at the Best Western, in Crystal River, and they are based just behind the motel. Our guide, and grandson of the owner, Dakota, was very professional, ensuring that we fully understood the rules about swimming with manatees. – He also told me that the best time to eat lobster in the Keys is July/August (which I must remember) so if you ever read this, Dakota – have a great summer down there!
I’ve begun this road trip story almost at the end, because this was the highlight for me, this was at the very top of my bucket list, but there were other, wonderful moments, and more posts to come very soon. Sometimes you need to get off island for a while…..even if it’s to other islands – more next time :)