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Swimming Nose-to-Nose with the Manatees

    By

Belkis Kambach

Photos: Courtesy of Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park

I always knew I was destined to swim with them, but until I finally did, I had no idea why? Truth is, swimming with them is a life altering experience.

In one American state, waking up one of these 2,000-pound sleeping beauties, will cost you a whopping fine, but it is perfectly legal to dive, snorkel or swim with these playful, inquisitive kids of the deep when they are awake and trying to make your acquaintance.  

Our latest trip took us to the manatees’ home turf, far away from the modern-day animal refugee camps we have constructed and now call aquariums.  We aimed our compass south to Florida's west central coast line and the Gulf of Mexico, and it is here that we met one of the most formidable aquatic mammals.

Citrus County and Crystal River is less than an hour and half drive from Orlando, Tampa or Daytona. In this fascinating little known corner of the U.S., Mother Nature's theme park features pristine rivers, trees dripping with Spanish moss, lush woods and more wildlife than people. From December to March, it is here that groups of manatees congregate. They have chosen to escape the cold winter ocean and bask in the warm waters near power plants and coastal clear water springs that stay about 72F degrees year-round.

Snorkelers, divers and swimmers like us come from all over the world for a chance to swim or interact with the gentle, docile West Indian manatee in its natural environment. Numerous dive sites, inland springs, good underwater visibility, calm water and its wintering manatee population have made Citrus County a popular destination for nature lovers.

Abundant plant life makes the area a perfect playground for the manatees, who arrive every year by the hundreds to find warmth, food and shelter, and maybe, just maybe, to visit us, the curious humans. The area is also safe for these endangered mammals whose lives are often cut short by environmental factors and fatal encounters with speeding watercraft.

Our days in Citrus County started very early in the morning, as this is the perfect time to snorkel with the manatees before they get tired of visitors. We boarded a pontoon boat about 7 a.m., and as we cruised to where we would snorkel, a gentle mist hugged the water. We were able to observe the manatees as they maneuvered through the water. They are quite agile for such a large animal, sometimes even doing barrel rolls in the water. They slowly glided towards us using their paddle-like tail to propell themselves up and down and, steering with their flippers, they gracefully moving their 12-foot-long bodies through the water. Our boat was soon surrounded by this gentle species.

Within minutes the captain stopped the engines, and we were soon given instructions. Whatever you do, he said -- and it doesn’t matter how excited you are -- remember the three golden rules: minimize splash noise; act with very slow movements; and when you do scratch one of these friendly, gentle gray giants on the back or stomach, never touch with more than one hand at a time! Two hands are illegal. The Endangered Species Act forbids touching a manatee unless it touches you first, and they will let you know. Remember you need to let the mammal make the first move.

The rules are strict in Crystal River, and the protection of this endangered species is taken very seriously. There is absolutely no chasing, riding or harassing the manatees. But we can assure you these rules won't diminish your unique experience in the least. Most of manatees here are very social and will come to you. This is not a penned up, artificial setting with captive animals. Here you are in a real river with real mammals free to come and go as they choose, and they choose to be here because you might show up and touch them.

Very slowly we entered the water, trying not to disturb them and also trying to keep down the amount of sediment on the bottom of the river. Upon our descent, some of the manatees were still sleeping while others were slow-paddling around. Swimming with the manatees is actually not at all difficult. There were young children as well as seniors on our trip, and there was no hesitation about meeting up with these big guys. There was only an abundant feeling of energy and curiosity among us all.

We were truly amazed the first time we touched a manatee, which feels somewhat like touching an elephant. They have thick brown-to-gray leathery wrinkled skin; very tiny eyes, stiff whiskers dotting their mouth and very wrinkled faces. Hair grows sparsely over their large body, and they appear similar to a sea lion or walrus without tusks. They emit a repertory of loud snorts and are believed to be close relatives of the elephant and a small rodent-like animal known as a hyrax. Manatees are believed to have evolved from a wading, plant-eating animal.

A manatee is big, we’d say very big, measuring 10 to 15 feet and weighing one ton, although some larger than 12 feet and weighing as much as 3,500 pounds have been recorded. Once you’re in their world, however, it's hard to distinguish size. They devour over four to nine percent of their body weight each day (200 pounds of greens) by eating five to eight hours daily to maintain their rotund shape.  They're strictly herbivores, but they eat a great variety of aquatic plant species, including water hyacinth, hydrilla and water lettuce. Much to our surprise this official marine mammal of Florida is also nearsighted.

Manatees often rest suspended just below the water's surface with only the snout above water.  They feed underwater but surface for air periodically about every three to five mintues. When dozing on the bottom, they balance on their head and tail, bowing in the middle oblivious to the fact that the world around them is moving much too fast for them and may well be the last leisure generation left in the US.

Manatees are wild, although when we were looking at one nose-to-nose from our scubapro snorkeling mask we had second thoughts about just how wild they are. They turned over and bared their bellies for us to rub, swam alongside and nibbled us.  We gave our newfound friends private time. Some glided away for a little siesta, then they came back within a few minutes to find us for yet another encounter.

Once in the water with our yellow Cressi fins captain asked Rob you want to volunteer to go in first? one glance at the huge beasts and their faces; and he declined his kind offer. But it took only minutes before  we cautiously began to snorkel, our tendency was to back up when we saw the inquisitive ones approach us. Unlique the rest of our group who thought they were big, dull animals with a face only a mother could love, my husband Rob a Dutch man who like many Dutch had never seen one of these and I despite their appearance, we just couldn’t help finding  them the most beautiful creatures of the sea,  but then again we both find elephant seals and walruses quite attractive and charming.

We swam in the inlets for a while, where the manatees prefer the warm, shallow water and abundant sea grass. We then left the sanctuary and headed toward deeper waters where, once again, we fastened our underwater cameras to our arms and quietly lowered ourselves into the water. 

We found ourselves surrounded by a graceful underwater trio, a mum and two younger manatees playing, two of which seemed to be kissing. We became still, to quietly observe manatees in the water, is a thing of beauty.  Soon we felt the first nudge, and after that the manatees swam around us seemingly oblivious to our presence. They twirled and spun through the water, then would rest by our knees to be rubbed.  They seem to particularly enjoy being scratched under their flippers. You never have to worry as these giants are always gentle.

For land lubbers: not all visitors want to get nose-to-nose with the manatees. The best place for non- swimmers to view these endangered mammals is Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, which showcases native Florida wildlife including alligators and the American crocodile. The park, located 75 miles north of Tampa, is impressive with 185 acres and a 45-foot deep natural spring that gushes forth millions of gallons of fresh water per hour from more than thirty natural springs. 

Most importantly the park provides refuge for captive-born manatees and a halfway house for rehabilitating those who will be returned to the wild. Some manatees that have been injured or orphaned will spend their lives in the park as they are unable to survive in the wild. The park also serves as a research and observation center, offering three daily educational programs to the public. There is also a floating underwater observatory in the spring that provides a fish eye view of the manatees -- the next best thing to actually swimming with them. The huge windows allow visitors to view the manatees at close range as they frolic, roll and enjoy their daily lettuce fix!

There is truly a mystique about these fascinating aquatic mammals. They are loving, playful, loyal and charismatic creatures that people can watch with delight for hours. Once you have swam next to a mother and her newborn calf, it is inconceivable that anyone could hurt them. Like many visitors, we left with unforgettable memories and became avid supporters of protecting and preserving these friendly, docile creatures. We believe there is hope that the manatee may yet be saved from extinction, but the public needs to become aware of the problem.

We’d like to encourage many more travelers like ourselves to learn about the plight of these gentle giants by one little up-close and personal encounter. For us, it was such an amazing and heart-felt experience that we decided to become the proud adoptive parents of a real manatee. We hope you’ll do the same and help ensure that these beautiful creatures will continue to thrive for generations to come.

 SIDEBARS:

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More About the Manatees

Biologists place manatees as members of the Sirenia genus, the mythical sirens who were once believed to have lured ancient Greek sailors to destruction. This evolved from the tale about a sailor mistaking an upright, nursing dugong for a mermaid. It is believed that Christopher Columbus was the first European to report seeing a manatee in the New World, and to him and other sailors who had been at sea for too long, manatees were also reminiscent of mermaids -- the mythical half-fish, half-woman creatures of the ocean. Manatees are, however not fish, but marine mammals.

There are today four widely recognized species: the endangered Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus), a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, population numbers only 2,000 in the U.S. Manatees are also found in the tropical and subtropical waters of the Caribbean, northeastern South America and the Amazon (Trichechus inunguis), West Africa (Trichechus senegalensis), and Indo-Pacific regions (Dugong dugon).

Historically, manatees were hunted by Native Americans and later by colonists. They became victims, hunted almost to extinction. Manatee fat was used for lamp oil, bones were used for medicinal purposes, and the hide for leather.  This hunting has been largely responsible for the manatee's initial decline. 

The fifth species that once lived in Arctic waters of the Bering Straight, the Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) were hunted to extinction within 27 years.  No Steller sea cow was ever collected for science, and drawings made by naturalist Georg Steller's assistant  (1741) on the return leg of explorer Vitus Bering's first Russian voyage to Alaska only briefly described it.

Modern day extinction of the manatee is an issue that shouldn’t be dismissed. Although manatees have no natural enemies or predators, as they are not territorial and have no known agenda, pretty much they just swim, sleep and eat.  They do face threats from cold weather. Manatees, like people, are susceptible to cold and hypothermia and cannot survive for extended periods when water temperatures fall below 68F. Civilization, pollution and destruction of their habitat by coastal development also affect their survival rate.

1967 was the year manatees were listed as an endangered species considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Florida also passed a law to protect manatees and designated the entire state as a refuge through a Sanctuary Act.

It was sad to learn that about 85 percent of adult manatees are identifiable to researchers studying their behavior by unique scar patterns on their bodies that result mostly from boat propeller injuries. Speeding boats run over many manatees that are submerged just below the surface, killing them either by impact with the boat itself or by slicing into their backs with the propellers More than 43 percent of manatee deaths has been attributed to human related factors.

A record high for watercraft related manatee mortality was set two years ago, according to post-mortem exams conducted in Florida.  There were 240 deaths, many resulting from encounters with boats, fishing line and traps. Death can result if the manatee's digestive tract becomes blocked by fishing line accidentally eaten. Their algea-covered bodies are also difficult for boaters to spot, and when they bobble up for air or while swimming near the surface they cannot avoid the fast-moving boats.

The manatee population cannot easily rebound from these threats because of its late breeding maturity and its low reproductive rate has been part of its downfall. The birth rate is not able to keep up with those manatees killed by watercraft collision. Manatees can live 60 years and even longer, but because of humans, many die an early, tragic death.

Manatee Motherhood: The most important bond in a manatee's life is with its mother.  Manatees reach maturity at approximately five years; one or rarely two calves are born every two to three years after a gestation period of 13 months. Calves may be born at any time during the year. Cows may nurse calves up to two years. Usually only one calf is born, but twins do occur. Newborn calves weighing up to 70 pounds are 4 feet long. They nurse underwater for about three minutes at a time from a nipple located behind their mother's forelimb. Born with teeth, calves begin eating plants within a few weeks but remain with their mother for up to two years.  Manatees communicate with each other by emitting sounds underwater that are audible to humans. The vocalizations, which sound like squeaks and squeals, are especially important for maintaining contact between mother and calf. One field report described a mother and her calf, separated by a flood gate, calling to each other for three hours without interruption until they were reunited.

Getting There:

The following information will help you plan  your trip and enjoy your visit especially if you are  visiting  for the first time.  October through March is  when manatees are in residence. 

For more information and driving directions contact: Citrus County Tourist Development Council 801 Southeast US Highway 19, Nature Coast Trail, Crystal River, Florida 34429: Phone: 352-527-5223 or 800-587-6667; Fax: 352-527-5317, Email: visit@citrus.infi.net

How to get there? The closest cities would be Crystal River, Inverness and Homosassa, Florida. Less than 1 hours drive from Orlando, Tampa or Daytona airports. Regularly scheduled airlines offer  service and nonstop flights to these three cities. To contact American Airlines Phone: 800-433-7300 to contact Delta Phone: 800-221-1212.

Accommodations: The town offers accommodations to suit every need, from modern resorts to intimate guest houses.  The Cottage at Shadowbright - a 1930's vine covered stone cottage on almost 2 park-like acres Phone: 352-341-0546 contact Cathi , Email: shadowbright@juno.com or visit their web site at www.bbonline.com/fl/shadowbright Magnolia Glen Bed & Breakfast - 800-881-4366 or 352-726-1832  Bonnie Kuntz or Email: bonbon@citrus.infi.net

What to bring with you: we’d like to caution sun worshipers, if you plan on snorkeling you might not want to forget your sunscreen. Like most warm destinations, sun protector is important.  A wet suit is necessary if you decide to take this trip in the later part of the year.  For your unique adventure, take along a sufficient waterproof disposable camera to record your encounter with the manatees however many dive shop operators make a video record for participants to purchase.

Snorkeling gear: The best investment we did for this trip was with no doubt buying Ocean Master’s dry snorkel.  They stay absolutely dry even when submerged in water and underwater you may exhale through the snorkel and the one way valve will let out air without letting in water better yet they’re guaranteed to last a lifetime.  This snorkel allows you to enjoy manatees for a longer period of time under water without coming up for a breath or consequently  swallowing a lifetime's supply of iodine.  If  you are investing in new snorkel equipment don’t hesitate to give these a try we are delighted Victor Chale the Paragon snorkel expert suggested it. Mask – any that fits your face comfortably and stays on without the strap around your head is a good one. Fins  should be closed heeled with no booties- if you already have them its OK.  We recommend Fins Cressi "freefrog" or Mares "Avanti".try to purchase the best equipment that you can afford and if possible practice before you go to assure proper fit and comfort to enhance your experience with the manatees.  Buy quality snorkeling gear at a professional dive shop. 

Weather: for a 24-hour weather forecasts, weather Labs publishes a wide assortment of weather content for nearly 2,000 cities globally see Weather Labs at http://www.WeatherLabs.com

To Scuba Dive or Snorkel -- The refuge is accessible only by boat. We encouraged to plan ahead and make reservations with one of the many dive shops and marinas in town for a manatee snorkel tour.  With several dive shops in the area, your every need can be catered, including instruction, guides, equipment rentals, even underwater video services. Although it is possible to venture out on your own with a private or rented boat, it is usually a better experience with a guide. 

For your diving needs contact: Bird's Underwater at 352-563-2763, Email: bird@xtalwind.net

or visit their web site at http://www.xtalwind.net/~bird/

Bird's Underwater 320 N.W. Hwy 19, Crystal River, FL 34429 (behind Dockside Trading Co.), owned & operated by Bill (Bird) & Diana Oestreich who know the subject of manatees intimately. Reservations are a must as the trips regularly sell out. They also video tape each tour and there is no better souvenir of your trip to Florida than Bird's gorgeously produced video of you swimming alongside your new underwater friends.

Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park 9225 West Fishbowl Drive, Homosassa, Florida 34448 - Phone: 352-628-5343 or Fax: 352-628-4243 or visit their web site at http://ww.citrusdirectory.com/hsswp

Open every day including holidays from 9 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.

 What can we do as a citizen to help save the manatee? In the grand scheme of things, educate others in the plight of the manatee, other protected species and the environment. Consider adopting a Manatee. Not only a  great gift idea but they are worth it!!! Save the Manatee Club, 500 N. Maitland Ave., Maitland, FL 32751 or visit on the web at http://www.savethemanatee.org 800-432-join education@savethemanatee.org

More information and related links can be found at:

To see a photograph of the skeleton of a Steller's sea cow in the Helsinki Museum, go to Ari Lampinen, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland. The text is in Finnish, but the photo is worth the trip! http://www.jyu.fi/~ala/ilmasto/steller.htm

http://www.gorp.com/gorp/resource/us_nwr/fl_cryst.htm

http://www.sirenian.org/

http://www.earthwatch.org/

http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/Vines/8764/main.htm

http://www.floridive.com/index4.htm

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Belkis Kambach is the travel editor for Finland-USA in Helsinki, Greenline and a frequent contributor to Toronto’s Globe & the Mail and Epicurean. Married to a Dutch she often writes about the Netherlands Antilles. She can be reached at travelwriter@att.net , or through her Web page, at http://home.att.net/~travelwriter/ .

 

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