Manatees are finally getting the respect they deserve. They have recently been downgraded from endangered to “threatened”. These gentle giants of Florida have become my spirit animal, and apparently for many other people! Years ago, while they were in danger of extinction, I saw them congregating in the warm waters near a power plant, viewed from behind high chain link fencing.
This time was totally different! After many years of conservation efforts by volunteers, by government agency people, and by law, they are back in strong numbers. Everywhere people are loving them, adding to the tourist economy in coastal areas, and bringing in people like me, who have dreamed of swimming with a manatee!
My dream came true during a recent trip to Crystal River, Florida! The first day of our trip we hired one of the many tour boat operators to take us to three Sisters Spring. It was beautiful snorkeling up the spring. We saw lovely fish and amazingly clear water there. But no manatees! Turns out manatees are highly sensitive creatures. They come in from feeding on ocean grasses only when it gets cold. The waters of the river deltas fed by springs are amazingly warm, so that’s why they are there in the winter months. The weather the day before had gotten warm, and they had headed out to the ocean to eat. Who could blame them? But we got skunked. (Cold days are perfect for swimming with the manatees.) That night, my son called me from his kayak. All the B&Bs in the area have kayaks, and they are easy to rent. He was tooling around the canals and he was surrounded! I jumped, or rather I wriggled, into a kayak and joined him. It was hard to see in the declining light, but we could hear them rising to the surface, sighing and breathing. They come up every 8 minutes or so. So peaceful and lovely.
The next morning, we were up at first light, kayaking to a nearby nature area…there they were! One special manatee decided to commune with me. She came right up to my kayak, nosed my hand in the water, just asking to be petted. So, I did for about a half hour! It was perfect. I pet her head and back, watching her breath through perfectly round nose holes, and seeing her lovely eyes. She was curious about the kayak and nibbled on my paddle. So gentle. I was in manatee heaven. There is still a lot of work to do to protect the manatees. It is so sad to see the many scars on their backs from propeller hits, but as more and more people are observing the speed rules, these beautiful creatures are coming back! They have no natural predators because of their immensely thick skins...except humans.
So, love a manatee. Come swim with them. Kayak with them. Enjoy their beauty and their gentleness. And don’t forget to send me a picture!
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