Two Days with the Manatees - Homosassa River
Crystal River had provided very interesting swims, and I especially enjoyed the Three Sisters Springs and the Main Spring - but we headed back to Homosassa Springs for our last two days of diving.
By Saturday the temperature had dropped to around 45 degrees at night, drawing more and more manatees into the warm water springs. Saturday morning we left early, a half-hour before daybreak, and made our way through the think fog to the springs area we had been to several times before.
This time there was a BIG difference - there were at least 10-20 manatees in the springs area, practically all over the place, and we knew it was going to be a great day of swimming.
We quietly entered the water, a few people at a time. The ghostly fog still hung over the warm water, and provided a "sauna-like" atmosphere to the quite water. In the distance the explosive exhale and inhale of manatees breathing could be heard through the quiet fog.
It didn't take long to get noticed by the manatees - I swam off away from the group that was engaging a few playful manatees around our boats - and headed further upstream to where the water was less disturbed. I came across a single manatee, swimming toward me as if to meet me half way.
It's awesome to see a 10-foot long, 3-foot wide animal gliding directly for you - it can be kind of intimidating for a moment. But that feeling doesn't last long once you see it's whiskery mug and heavy fat lips. They really are goofy looking animals - like I said earlier, some of them remind me of my beloved Sharpeii, Roscoe.
This was the encounter I was waiting for - I felt accepted by the animal and knew that the animal was interested in making contact - or else he wouldn't have approached me.
I started scratching his back, just behind his head - where a neck would be, if he had a neck. He seemed to like this very much and moved a little closer to me so I could scratch a little farther.
I noticed his eye was riveted on me, the whites showing near the front, as he strained to almost look behind him, where I was. I also noticed a few small propeller scars on his back, and one long scratch along his side, which didn't look worse than a scratch, and looked like he had rubbed up against something sharp himself. These marks would help me later to identify this animal again.
I continued to scratch along his back, then moved down his side, so I could start scratching his belly. Once again he met me half way by slowly rolling his huge body over on it's side, exposing his lighter colored underside.
Where the top of the manatee was very rough and firm, the bottom seemed "softer" and more jiggly. His skin would move more freely under the pressure of my fingertips. It seemed "looser" than the tougher skin on the top and sides.
I started to scratch just behind his front "flipper" - where you could say his armpit would be. I got quite a response from the manatee - and I'd almost have to swear it was tickling him. His body shook a little, and his flippers went a little crazy, moving back and forth and circling - and after a few seconds he actually used his other flipper to push my hand away. I looked at his upside down face, and - to me - it looked like he was smiling. It was very weird. I know I was smiling.
After scratching him for about 10 minutes, and being nuzzled by him a few times, the manatee began to leave. Not very quickly, but I could tell he was heading off. Our guide from the day before, Bill (From Bird's Underwater), had told us that if you remain still and don't try to follow, they will usually come back in a few minutes.
Well, he was right - the manatee swam off about 20 yards, turned around and looked at me for a moment, then came gliding back over to be scratched some more. He repeated this several time, swimming off after 10 minutes or so, checking to see if I was giving him his space, then returning to get scratched some more.
There was a point where he swam off and I didn't see him for a while. He had headed back toward the boats to a distance where I couldn't see him any longer. I decided to hold tight where I was, and waited.
A few minutes later a pair of young manatees came swimming up. One came from behind and I didn't even know she was there until she nudged into my side as she slowly swam up. I had to abandon my camera, as I had both scratchers going at the same time - one on the backs of each animal. (It is illegal to use two hands on a manatee - it is considered riding the manatee - and you will be fined or arrested for it. See MANATEE RULES for more information.)
I had my hands full - literally - then I noticed 3 more animals slinking on over to me. I think "the word" had gotten out that I had some good scratching going on, and they came to check me out. It was so crowded for a few minutes that the manatees were nudging each other out of the way, trying to get closer. I did the best I could to keep everyone happy. I was having a blast.
A few must have decided that I wasn't all I was cracked up to be, or they just thought they could get the same somewhere else without the traffic - and I was left with two interested individuals again. I noticed one of these that stayed was the same one as earlier - the long scratch on his side gave him away.
The other must have thought my kneecap looked tasty - I was wearing a shorty-style wet suit, and the hairs on my legs were floating around in the currents - maybe they looked like scrawny sea grass.
Well, this young manatee wanted to check it out, and grabbed my knee in it's mouth. I can tell you, it didn't hurt - but it didn't tickle either. Manatee lips are very strong - and are rough on the inside. They use their lips to pull food in toward their mouth, which sit back several inches from their lips.
Their lips are very agile, and can move to grip or pull. This one had a good grip on my knee for a second, until I brushed it away. Then he went to do the same thing to the tips of my rubber fins, which I let him do for a few minutes - until his mother (I assume) squealed disapprovingly and quickly nudged the youngster away from me (shooting me a dirty look from it's eye closest to me).
The rest of the day went by with a lot less commotion. I had several other rewarding encounters with different manatees, and my old friend with the scratch came back to see me once or twice.
Our last day in Florida was spent on the river again - first thing in the morning. This day I wanted to take as many underwater photographs as I could - I had borrowed an underwater camera from a friend who left a few days earlier. Again I went off to where the water was less stirred-up, and waited. Again the animals came to me to see what I was sitting around waiting for. I took 6 rolls of film that day (I would have taken more, but hated to get out of the water to reload the camera).
George noticed some different kind of action going on over near some downed palm trees that were in the water. The manatees were scratching and rolling around them, playing, and stirring up a lot of sediment. Some swimmers came over to check things out, and they were nudged, rubbed against, and even lifted out of the water by the fun-loving manatees. This went on for several hours, until the manatees seemed tired, and all went to sleep - in a three-point face-plant on the bottom of the river.
One other thing I saw that day was a guy actually grab a young manatee by two flippers, and try to maneuver the animal in the direction of his buddy, who was busy trying to film with an underwater video camera, despite all the sediment he was stirring up by floundering around without fins.
Besides the few idiots who don't know what they're doing, everyone else came away from this experience smiling, laughing - with memories that will not fade for some time.
There is an argument among some experts as to whether or not people should interact with manatees as closely as we did during our trip. The Save The Manatee Club is against any actual contact, as it seems it would make manatees lose their natural fear of man, and make them more susceptible to injury from boats or malicious people who like to hurt wild animals (like carving their initials into their skin - it's happened before).
But then there are all the rest of the people, who feel supervised contact between man and manatee on this level creates a greater awareness and a stronger commitment to push to protect this endangered animal among those who have actually "met" them before. I have to agree with this line of reason, as my own experience has made me into a "Manatee Cheerleader" who has spent the last week creating this website to help spread awareness - and to give my visitors a greater appreciation for this animal through my stories and pictures, even though you may not get the chance yourself to swim with these gentle giants.
But the good news is, that if you do decide you want to swim with the manatees, you will probably have your chance. Efforts to protect and preserve the manatee seem to be working - or at least holding steady. With continued conservation, active management and rescue and rehabilitation programs - hopefully your children's children will also have a chance to see manatees in the wild - and get to meet one like I did.
Call the Wildlife Alert Hotline 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or *FWC/#FWC, or use VHF Channel 16 on your marine radio if you see an injured, dead, tagged, or orphaned manatee, or if you see a manatee being harassed.
Manatee News Blog