Donna and I rented sit-on-top kayaks from a guy on Hernando Beach north of Tampa in Florida. This guy was an interesting enough fellow; he talked a lot about all the cool things he has done (diving, boating, etc) and why I should consider buying a sit-on-top. He also let on that he grew up in a time when it was not uncommon to have run-ins with the DEA in New Orleans (N'Orleans) where he used to live.
We put in on the Weeki Wachee River about 1/2 mile from the Gulf of Mexico. We had gone up this spring earlier in the week in a canoe, this time we thought we'd try the sit-on-tops. We came back both to try sit-on-tops and because this river is probably the most picturesque we have ever seen. The water springs forth from the bowels of the earth and goes rushing to the Gulf at a constant 1 knot or so. It never stops flowing, and it is crystal clear. At every bend, the spring has dug out a trench from six to twelve feet deep, in which you can see all variety of fresh water fish as though you were looking into an aquarium. The water temperature is always 73 degrees. All manner of birds make their home here, including vultures, ducks, storks, and pelicans. Best of all, manatees come here in the winter because the water is warm.
On our earlier trip to this spot, we saw two manatees, a mother and its calf, swimming beneath our canoe. We reached our hands down as they rose to the surface to sip some air, but we couldn't quite reach them. It was a cool day, and I found that the sheer bulk of these beasts made me nervous, so I didn't jump in to swim with them. Today was a different story.
Today we found the same two manatees (I assume) very near where we had seen them the other day, after a half an hour of idle paddling. Donna insisted that this time I must jump in with them, and I concurred. We beached the boats and a I tread out to near where the manatees were lazily floating up and down in seven or eight feet of water. I didn't go right up to them, mostly because they are frighteningly large and unwieldy looking. They look like they could inadvertently roll into you and, well, I don't know what, but it could be bad. Using the word graceful in the same sentence as the word manatee is a non sequitor.
So there I was, treading water, warily watching the manatees rise toward the surface and swim right by me. As one of them approached, I backed off and gave a little cry of dismay saying "They sure are big!" I was afraid to touch them. After just a couple of minutes of this little minuet between myself and the manatees, a man and woman in a canoe paddled toward us. Donna indicated the location of the manatees (which happened to be distressingly near my location) and they dug in their paddles and came rushing to the scene. They donned mask and snorkle and jumped in the water. With these two obviously manatee-experienced people in the water, I loosened up. I tenuously reached out and touched the calf on its back. It was smooth with widely spaced, inch long hairs. It didn't mind my touching it at all. The other couple encouraged me to rub the manatee. I rubbed the little one on its back, and it lazily turned over under water to offer its underside, just like a tame, happy dog.
With my first touch of a manatee under my belt, I became a little more bold. I touched the mother as she passed by checking on her little one. She seemed less interested in us, and not as warm to our touches. Her back was covered with white stripes, a foot long and several inches wide. These "stripes" were hard ridges to the touch. I asked the couple what they are. They told me that they are scars caused by motor boats. No wonder she is more wary of us.
The man offered me his mask, which I gladly accepted. I dove down, getting a good, close up underwater look at the calf. They have very small faces with docile expressions, yet also exhibiting much curiosity. The calf was as interested in looking at me in my mask as I was in studying it. They are endearing in that they are big and funny looking; and also completely friendly. The calf liked playing with us as much as we liked being with it.
After a while I began to wonder why Donna hadn't joined us. I swam back to her, and with the help of the canoe woman, talked Donna into struggling into her wetsuit and joining us. Swimming with the manatees is an experience not to be missed. Donna got a chance to swim around and rub the calf's stomach, until a couple of yahoos in a motor boat came by. One of them donned a mask and jumped in with us dashing into the scene like he was rushing onto a football field. At this, the already wary mother became even more agitated. The canoe people said that the crowd is probably getting to the mother, and we should back off. This we all did, but for the yahoo. Fortunately, the mother shooed her calf downstream, away from the motor boat.
After this trip, I learned more about the plight of the manatee. There are about 2000 of them remaining in the U.S. and they are considered an endagered species. They are killed at a rate of about 50 per year by, you guessed it, motor boats. As they come to the surface for a sip of life giving air, they get chopped up by the boat's propeller. They are too slow to get out of the way, so they really don't have a chance. On this trip, we saw some guys in a motor boat chasing a manatee to get a better look at it. If I had known the plight of the manatee, I would have confronted them more sternly. As it was, my experience touching the scarred back of the mother prompted me to suggest to the yahoos that they cut their motor. It amazes me that a race with our brain capacity cannot respect the fragile lives of other species on our planet.
If you go to central Florida, visit the manatees. But use paddle craft to get to their habitat, and let them come to you. If they choose to, they can be great friends. If you choose to, you can be their worst enemy.
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