Monday, January 25, 2016

Swim with the Manatees

            For a wildlife adventure that you’ll remember forever, head to western Florida.  Swimming with the manatees is one of the Southeast’s greatest outdoor experiences.  During the winter, over 400 of these docile creatures migrate to the headwaters of Crystal River where they enjoy the constant 72 degree water.   Unlike ersatz dolphin encounters where nearly domesticated animals are corralled into an enclosure to engage with swimmers, these manatees are really wild.  They’re free to approach people or swim away.  Amazingly though they seem to want interaction and routinely come up to swimmers.  Crystal River is one of only a few places where you can legally engage with manatees in their natural habitat. 

            Manatees have no known predators. Most fatalities are caused by run-ins with boats or loss of habitat.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulates swimming with manatees and the establishment of sanctuaries for them. Florida began passing laws to protect manatees beginning in 1893.  They’ve been on the endangered species list since 1967.  Concerned guests on our tour asked questions about the creature’s welfare and environment.  Guides explained the regulations that make it a safe activity for both the swimmers and sea life. We were instructed to not chase them, crowd them or make loud disturbances in the water.  They are gentle and curious, our guides said.    
     My husband and I began our tour early in the morning with the winter temperature hovering around 45 degrees.  Swimming seemed like the last thing I wanted to do.  Coffee seemed like the first thing.  Fortunately River Ventures had it waiting along with hot chocolate when we checked in to get oriented and fitted for wetsuits and snorkels.  At the dock, a blanket of steam laid ethereally upon the warmer river.  We mustered our courage, pulled on our masks and slipped into the clear water.  I consider myself a good swimmer and not fearful but when I put my masked face underwater and saw SUV-sized creatures lolling nearby, I gasped.  These West Indian manatees are between 1,000-3,000 pounds and 10-13 feet long.  Their wrinkled, whiskered heads are massive.  Their blubbery bodies are huge.  Despite being told that they are gentle, I was intimidated at first.  I had expected to see just a few if we were lucky but they were plentiful and easy to see. The underwater world of dappled light and graceful movements soon calmed me though.  It was easy to glide along with just a flick of my flippers and mosey behind one as it slowly searched for aquatic plants to eat.  I drifted alongside as it surfaced to breathe: an explosive exhale and then a languid dive down again.  One rolled over and looked down at me expectantly.  I rubbed its rough belly lightly.  Floating was easy.  I wasn’t cold. There was no wake, no discernable tide, no waves.   We swam for hours in amazement.

            The nearby town of Cedar Key smells like seafood and still resembles an old Florida fishing village.  On the beach we stopped to speak to a man who was fixing a brick wall that had been
damaged in a close call with a hurricane.   Just this morning, he told us, he’d picked up his dinner on this beach.  He’d dug Quahog clams at low tide and hung a large conch upside down to remove the meat which he beat to tenderized before cooking.  He also regaled us with stories about his fascinating profession as a bee pollinator, taking his hives across the state to pollinate orange groves.  At the popular Island Hotel Restaurant we ordered their specialties:  succulent crab bisque and palm salad.  The hotel takes special pride in having invented that salad which was unexpectedly sweet with fruit and dates along with the fresh hearts of palm.

            The town also prides itself on its slow pace.  This is the old Florida “before the traffic, deadlines and demands occupied your life and swallowed your lifestyle” their website touts.  People are unhurried and friendly.  At the marina, a local sailor invited us for a sunset cruise and told us about his life living at the marina.  He was so proud of his new cedar and mahogany sailboat.  Until the tourist season, he planned to cruise around and fish.  As we sailed towards the setting sun, he waved at another marina family coming back into port.  They held up a string of fresh catch for him to admire.  “Looks like tonight’s dinner,” he said hopefully. “People are so laid back here,” I observed.  “Maybe they’re just bored,” he quipped.  If so, it’s a welcome boredom away from the hustle and bustle of the Disney-esque Florida where people rush madly to stand in long lines.  Here, the pace is leisurely, like a manatee ambling through the warm water and rolling onto its back for a gentle scratch. 
If You Go;
The manatee tour:
The town of Crystal

Manatee photo credits:  River Ventures