Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Rules of Engagement

There are several rules and guidelines that one must abide by.

1) Scratching under the chin is acceptable
2) Rubbing the belly is fine
3) Let them approach you, but don't be aggressive and chase after them
4) Never try to ride them
5) If they are feeding - never disturb them
6) Do not poke them
7) And if they seem to want their space - let them have it. You don't want to anger a manatee

I took Ma-Le to "Swim with the Manatees" for her birthday a few days ago. Crystal River - about an hour north of Tampa and 3 1/2 hours north of Fort Myers is the only place you are permitted to enter the water and swim among the nearly "400 manatees" that inhabit this river. There are over 2500 West Indian Manatee around the coastal waterways of Florida, but this is by far the largest concentration of the rotund mammals around.

We woke up before the crack of dawn and headed to the marina on the Crystal River - The air temp was nearing 60 degrees and although it would rise to 72 by sun up, the water was still cool enough to require wetsuits. Fancy! If there's one thing I despise more than swimming it would be wearing skin tight clothing. I won't post my wetsuit picture - but for your amusement and so my friends the Rosas can't blackmail me - here's a picture they took of me as Woodsy Owl wearing skin tight yellow leotards. At least I think that's what they call them. How the hell would I know. (More on Woodsy in a future post)After a 15 minute debriefing on the "Rules of Engagement" with Manatees and the rundown on the "stupid" rules the government is trying to establish to prevent the public from swimming with Manatees - the captain shoved off and began heading up river to the sanctuary. I say "stupid" - and I took the time to stop typing this an actually do the air quotes - because the captain feels protecting the manatees is "stupid" and that the laws "and stuff" that they are trying to pass are "stupid". I will from this point forward refer to our skipper as "Captain Stupid". Feel free to do the air quotes as you read this.

It was a chilly but beautiful morning. I shivered the whole way in my wetsuit. Aptly named because it was still wet from the day before when someone else's skin was squeezed into the same suit. Ma-Le snapped this lovely photo at dawn (6:30 am)

The Banana Island sanctuary is centered around one of many springs that gurgles water up from the aquifer. The manatees and other river inhabitants enjoy the spring and congregate here, protected from annoying humans by buoys and ropes. If they venture outside this protected area - prepare for chin scratchings and belly rubs! Oh how exciting this is going to be! In all seriousness - I was extremely excited - despite the wetsuit.

When we anchored - Captain Stupid expertly pointed out our first potential manatee and suggested it might be nearby based on the ring of 25 snorkelers peering into the murky depths. It wasn't so much of a ring as it was a huddle, like in football when the QB is giving the play. I figured I'd leave this one poor manatee to the masses and find my own. There were 400 of them right?
Our group of 35 disembarked into the cold water and doggy paddled their way to the ring of snorkelers. I waited and when someone shouted "it's coming your way". I sank into the water, tested my snorkel breathing and began my search. Nothing. I can hardly see my hands. Who named this Crystal River and why? The 12 foot, 1500 lb Manatee had eluded me. We spent the next 70 minutes paddling about, masks down searching for at least one of the "400 manatees" that congregate here. From the photo above you can see why they might not want to hang out here. In the 90 minutes we were anchored here, at least 5 other snorkel boats came along and at one point there were at least 150 people in the water.
I nervously looked up every few minutes to make sure my boat wouldn't leave me and my birthday girl and when the majority of our crew climbed back on board, I followed. A woman complained she hadn't seen a Manatee and Captain Stupid responded "Oh that's too bad, you're the only one". To which I and several others dejectedly said we hadn't either. Captain Stupid than angrily said "then why are you back on the boat!"

I never did see a Manatee in the water, much less swim with it. I was annoyed enough to consider poking one if I did. But it wasn't the Manatee's fault. The silly thing is I see them nearly every time I am out on tour. I thought it might be fun to see them from a different perspective.

As we chugged back to the marina, we passed a sailboat graveyard, littered with a dozen or so abandoned vessels. On the western horizon two cooling stacks appeared from the nuclear power plant. Apparently they are building another nearby.

I include no Manatee photos here - nor much in the way of natural history facts about them. I find that appropriate considering we saw none and in the end - Captain Stupid never told us anything about the Manatees other than what you can and can not do when you swim with them. Disappointing to say the least. Maybe this is spiteful - but I hope they pass that "stupid" law to keep people away from Manatees. Save the Manatees - Swim with an Alligator.


  1. Good Morning Pete, Loved your accounting of SWIMMING WITH THE MANATEES! It really put a smile on Jamaica Dad & Mom's face to see "WOODSY THE OWL"!!!! Look forward to meeting MA-LE! Have a super day...Jamaica Mom & DAD

  2. Hopefully we will be heading up soon for a visit. Also hoping you don't have a picture of me in the Woodsy outfit before I put the feathers on. :)

  3. That's Mr. Captain Stupid to you!

    Is it true that Manatees taste just like bald eagle?

  4. I hear they taste like salty Burrowing Owls.

  5. hmmm 150 people, no bathrooms... eewww. I hope you scrubbed yourself down afterwards with a large rake


  6. who needs a bathroom when you have a wetsuit....