Last month, I fulfilled a long-held wish to see the West Indian Manatee in its natural habitat, the various rivers and lakes and hot springs of central and southern Florida. It was a wild success. A friend and I drove two kayaks to the Crystal River and got on the water at a public park put-in about a mile from Three Sisters Springs. It was both early and quite cold—the best conditions for seeing the manatees. The water from the springs stays a constant temperature all year round (still fairly cold to us, just not to them), and they congregate during the winter months to keep their body temperatures in the right range.
We kayaked out of a little cove and headed toward the springs, fighting a little bit of wind but with otherwise ideal conditions. Our success at seeing manatees up close came early and often, and here is where I must make my disclaimer: we did not approach the manatees, chase them, pursue them, or undertake harassing behavior in any way. They simply popped up all around us, diving down to feed for a while and then coming up to breath. All we had to do was sit and watch. We were in Citrus County, which was grandfathered out of the tight restrictions on interaction with manatees because of its heavy tourism business, but we tried to abide by those state-wide laws anyway.
I’m not going to spend much time describing what manatees are, their history, or on giving any fun fats; there are plenty of articles doing this better than I would. I like this one from Mental Floss. Here are my details for you: They are huge, friendly, adorable, and eat almost constantly. Closest living animal relative: the elephant.
You can take manatee boat tours that ferry you to the springs and generally try to get you in a good viewing position, but the kayaks are far superior. You can’t hurt the manatees in a kayak, you are right in the water, you are non-threatening, and you don’t need a wetsuit unless you flip, which I did not (it was cold).
One pair of juvenile manatees (probably only 500-700 pounds; adults reach upwards of 1,500) actually sought us out for some play. It was pure magic. They nudged our boats, rolled to show their bellies, and generally gave us the business. We kept our paddles up and let them do their thing. I’m not quite sure it rivaled my experience with humpbacks, which I got up-close and personal with in the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia a couple of years ago, but it was close. Some pics and a video (all taken by me except the post cover image):
There are about 5,000 manatees left throughout Florida. That’s less than enough. I’m tempted to go all gooey and save-the-manatee on you here, but I’ll restrain myself. We met quite a few wonderful, dedicated women doing great conservation work while paddling, volunteers who stay on the water in their kayaks for many hours at a time to guard the manatees against motorboats and to keep overzealous tourists from loving them to death. Most were retirees. I salute them.
I will say this—one thing I loved about the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia is that every boat operating there must have a cage built around its propellers to prevent contact between whales and the blades. It’s a condition of the licensing. I recognize such a restriction on the entirety of the manatee range in Florida is unrealistic, but it seems like a good idea for the Crystal River area around the hot springs where manatees congregate. I was astonished to see even the “manatee eco-tour” boats zooming right by with outboard motors in the water. If you ever go to see them and are physically able, kayaking is the best method.
Some random thoughts on these adorable blobs:
- They’re big.
- Really big.
- There’s nothing quite like kayaking and looking down to find something larger than your boat swimming beneath you.
- Technically, there’s nothing quite like any experience described with that level of detail. If I said “there’s nothing quite like eating a slice of pizza and looking down and seeing an ant crawl over your shoe,” you’d say “yeah, I guess.”
- If I found a way to live full-time in the water, I think I could safely put on two to three hundred pounds of extra weight without much loss of mobility. I’m not into underwater grasses, though, so it would need to be a donut-based gain.
- Manatees are nice. TOO nice. No natural predators for thousands of years until the motorboat. Every manatee we saw had liberal scarring on its back.
- If aliens ever make contact with us, and they are water-based creatures with giant interstellar ships like contained oceans, and they prove to have a long-lost relationship with some Earth species, and they’ve returned to check on the connection, and everyone is like “hey isn’t this the plot of Star Trek IV,” then I’d like that special relationship to be with manatees instead of humpback whales.
- I need a new, water-based giant mammal for my “must see” list. I’ve done humpbacks and manatees. Hippos are too scary. Seals don’t give me the same thrill. I think I’ll go with…walrus.
Note: At the risk of repetition, which is no-good-very-bad for writing, I must reiterate that the manatees came to us; we did not pursue them. I also realize the desensitization to human contact is not healthy. The manatees who came to us for play would probably be better off afraid of people and boats. But hey, they were adorable, and I’m only human.
Have a great week. If you’re ever feeling down, remember that somewhere, an underwater blob is eating plants and thinking happy thoughts.