Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Manatees and the Bucket List

I was a young child when I first saw the Manatees on television on the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (http://www.wildkingdom.com/index.html) hosted by Marlin Perkins; or since that was so long ago (surprised I can actually remember that) perhaps it was on some National Geographic special. I remember watching in absolute amazement at these incredible creatures. They look like giant walruses or streamlined hippos with fins and are often called Sea Cows. Yet, despite their great bulk they are the most graceful and gentle creatures of the sea.

Copyright 2012 Francois Cleroux

They love warm waters and so they spend their Florida winters in the safety and warmth of naturally occurring hot springs in local rivers. During the summer months they are found throughout all the Florida coastlines and up the east coast to Maine. Manatees are herbivorous and feed on plants. These amazing animals are on the endangered species list. Years of neglect on our part (mankind) have dwindled their numbers. Boaters running over the just below surface swimming Manatees have killed large numbers. Scientist and conservationist used to think the propellers used to cut them up and kill them but most Manatees can survive even the worst cuts from propellers. This is very evident when swimming with them as you can see many with old large propeller scars. Most of the smaller younger animals appear scar less. This in great part is because of the great work of the Manatee Conservation Groups (
http://www.savethemanatee.org/) and the State and Federal Governments stepping in and introducing Laws, setting aside rivers for them and mostly educating the public. Most of the past deaths were caused by boaters hitting the animals at high speeds often knocking out the animals or causing concussions which would eventually lead to drowning. Boat Speeds are strictly enforced now with some very hefty fines as deterrents. Some areas are also set aside where boaters and even kayakers are not allowed to go. This gives the Manatees sheltered areas free of the annoyances on man.

Copyright 2012 Francois Cleroux

One would think that large National or World Heritage sites would be created so that man could leave them alone completely. But this is 2012 we are talking about and we need to be realistic. The Manatee is a very large source of income through tourism. Thousands of jobs are created because of them and shutting it all down would hurt the local economies. Perhaps the economy alone should not be a reason for not leaving them alone but current laws and regulations have kept the herds in check with slight increases in population in recent years. The measures appear to be working.

I checked out where to go to see the Manatees in Florida long before going on the trip. I check out the locations and the tour companies and did due diligence in finding guide companies that are known to follow the rules and regulations but more importantly the guidelines and the respect the Manatees deserve. Some tour guides and companies are like Fishing Guides and all they care about is getting clients to the location fast and will do whatever they need to do to make sure that their clients see a Manatee. In the process, Manatees are harassed, disturbed, often scared and on occasion injured. Using a reputable company is crucial and the least we can do as visitors to their realm.

Copyright 2012 Francois Cleroux

Just before leaving for Florida the newest issue of Popular Photography had a one page article on the Manatees and they listed several companies that offer Manatee Tours. Whoever added the list, either the person that wrote the article or perhaps Popular Photography editors as information and filler, did not due their due diligence. Some of the companies are not all that reputable (based on Web Research, Web Feedback and word of mouth in Crystal River). Such excursions should not just be about getting a picture. Someone should have made sure they were the most reputable companies in terms of respecting the Manatees.

Not on the list is a great resort called the Plantation Inn at Crystal River (
http://www.plantationoncrystalriver.com/). Apart from being a great destination resort that offers Golf, Shuffleboard, Tennis and Fishing, they have a well-staffed Diving Shop that offers Diving and Manatee Excursions. They have a great reputation for caring for and respecting the Manatees and they not only educate their clients but watch to make sure clients observe the laws and also respect the animals.

Copyright 2012 Francois Cleroux

Another great thing about the resort is the value of the Manatee packages. Manatee excursion runs from about $45.00 per person to about $75.00 per person. There are few good hotels in the area and rooms can be costly. The Plantation Inn offers a "Manatee Package" for two people. The cost with taxes is $218.00 (based on when we went and at current rates). This package included a great room for the night, two breakfasts off the menu from their excellent restaurant where we had dinner the previous evening, and two Manatee Excursions. This is a great deal especially as the Inn is so spectacular. Great facilities and the staff were excellent.

We had breakfast at 6:30 AM and then got ready and met at the Dive Shop for 7:30 where we were fitted with 5mm thick Wetsuits, Flippers, Snorkels and Masks. We then watched a 10 to 15 minute video introducing us to the animals and teaching us about guidelines and laws. This was followed by a quick Q&A session before we headed out. Our first stop was only a 5 minute boat ride at what seemed to be about a 2 mile per hour speed. The Inn is right dab in the middle of where all the action is. Another great reason to be at the Plantation Inn.

Copyright 2012 Francois Cleroux
Our first stop brought us to a shallow river area that was somewhat murky but we were told the waters would be clearer near the hot springs where the Manatees were. I managed to talk my wife into getting into the water for the short and easy swim to the springs despite her still being a little fearful of the creatures. I jumped in first as she wanted and then she jumped in. As she got her bearings and adjusted her mask she let out a little sound as two great big Manatees were already in her face! As the guide and I were already swimming away she swam to follow suit – quickly.

The springs area we were in had some roped off areas that are out of bounds areas that you are not allowed to swim into. Reaching the springs after about a 20 second swim the water was much clearer and also noticeably much warmer. There were about twenty other snorkelers in the area. As we approached the spring the Manatees were there to be seen. A few more strokes and you could see many Manatees and oh, there, right beside me!

Copyright 2012 Francois Cleroux

We had been told that if they approach that it is ok to reach out gently and to touch them with one hand as they like being scratched. I reached over and started scratching and immediately without reservation and with total trust the Manatee rolled over and exposed its belly as it wanted its belly scratched. We had been told they may do that. As the Manatee pushed towards me I rubbed its belly with both hands. What an incredible first encounter. Peeking up I saw the guide and the others in our group heading further in so I started swimming away. After only a stride or two I was nudged heavily from my right side. Looking down I saw it was the Manatee that I had just been rubbing. Once I stopped it quickly rolled over again to be rubbed.

Wow. Had this Manatee just chased after me for more? Well, as it happened throughout the rest of the day it obviously had. Perhaps they should be called the "Dogs of the Sea". From this first area we went back to the boat and then on to the "Three Sisters". These are three hot springs in a row in a river nearby. The water was incredible, warmer and much clearer than before and made for great pictures with my little Canon underwater housing and my G11 camera. There we many more Manatees here but many were sleeping. The encounters were still excellent but not as exuberant as at the other location.

Copyright 2012 Francois Cleroux

I did however have a great moment with a baby Manatee that swam right to me and slowly approached my face. It was looking directly at me as it approached ever closer right up to my mask and then slowly and gently it pushed its face into my mask as if kissing me. Seeing the animal that close was incredible and an experience I will never forget. Then it quickly rolled over indicating it was time for a belly rub.

I wonder if these sea dogs could be taught to fetch?

The best time to see Manatees in Crystal River is from November to March with the peak season being at the same time as the Crystal River Manatee Festival which ran from January 21st to the 22nd this year (2012). I would highly recommend adding "Swim with the Manatees" to your bucket list and paying the folks at the Plantation Inn at Crystal River a visit.

© 2012 Jean-François Cléroux

(Version 1.00 - March 2012)

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