By Valerie C. Coffey
We decided months ago before we arrived in Florida that we wanted to see manatees, whatever it takes, wherever that would take us. We’ve never seen one even in captivity, much less in the wild. So we booked a site at a charming RV campground called Nature’s Resort, near Homosassa Springs Wildlife Refuge and Crystal River Wildlife Refuge, two places that are considered the best places to see manatees. We arrived in early December.
During the winter months of November through February, manatees leave the cold open ocean for shallow, inland fresh water. They like to have water that is 72F to 74F. If the water is as cold as 68F, they can actually grow so lethargic that they die. They can eat up to 10% of their weight in vegetation every day.
We had two days to get out there and see manatees, and yesterday, bingo! The first manatees I saw were four behemoths in captivity at the Homosassa Springs facility. Then, from the observation deck at the park, we saw our first wild manatees. MANATEEEES!!
Manatees are kind of like walruses or seals because they stay in the water. They move a bit like whales but more slowly. Their closest genetic cousins are elephants because they have “prehensile” lips, which means they use their lips like a hand to grab underwater vegetation. But they call them “sea cows” because they are very gentle, slow moving, underwater grazers. Whatever animal they remind you of, they are like nothing else. And they are extra endearing because they are mammals and the mothers keep their babies close for two years. When the baby is born, the mother and nearby manatees push the baby up for air until it gets the idea of how to breathe itself.
The trouble with manatees though is that they are underwater (in case that wasn’t acutely obvious). They only surface occasionally from the murky depths to take a breath for a split second. The second you notice their whiskery little nostrils coming up for air, they submerge again. Getting pictures of them is a lot like getting pictures of whales or dolphins. They’re elusive. It’s a lot like surfing…sitting on your surfboard waiting for a big wave to hit you at just the right intersection of time and location.
Fantasies of Manatees
So we wanted more. Here in Citrus County, Florida, it’s the only place in the world where it is legal to swim with manatees. We would have liked to hire a guide to take us on a wild manatee encounter, which by all accounts is the right way to do it, but all the guide companies want to take you first thing in the morning, and Mitch and I both had to work on our last morning in Citrus County. So on our last day, we decided to try and get closer. We rented a canoe right from our campground’s marina and took off down the gentle Homosassa River waterways, in search of manatees to swim with.
Well, we did see manatees! The first sign of them was in a residential area, where a woman on a dock in her backyard confirmed that the flat spots in the water were indeed a few manatees. She asked if we had gotten a chance to swim with them yet, and when we said no, but we would like to, she said, “OH! You HAVE to do it!!
She then kindly invited me to use her dock to get out of the canoe and get into the water. I jumped off her dock into the water and excitedly swam off after the manatees while Mitch stayed in the canoe at the dock. But the manatees were on a mission, just traveling through, and at 5 or 6 miles per hour, traveling much faster than I could swim. I lost them. The rules of swimming with manatees are that you can’t harass them. You have to let them come to you. Chasing after them felt wrong anyway, so I swam back to the dock and got back into the canoe.
We decided to keep paddling a bit further, down to the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Refuge where we had seen wild manatees the day before from an observation deck. We arrived in our canoe to a fairly active scene of manatees hanging around, and I decided I didn’t think I could get in and out of the canoe without a dock, so it was Mitch’s turn to take a plunge and try to get up close and personal with the manatees. Mitch jumped off the canoe, and treaded water for a while, but no manatees came close enough for an encounter. He tried holding still, holding onto the side of the canoe, but no manatees came near.
Meanwhile, I was trying to maneuver the canoe so that the sun was behind us, and the manatees would be more visible, without hitting a boat that was anchored, and without blocking the view of the patrons on the refuge’s wildlife observation deck, as we were right in front of it.
After a while, Mitch got too cold (the water was maybe 76F) and needed to get back in the canoe. And that’s where the rest of the trouble started. He went to climb back in the canoe, but the water was deep enough that he couldn’t touch bottom. I was in the front of the canoe, facing away from him, and leaning as far to the right as possible to counterbalance him as he tried to get in the canoe on the left side. We have successfully completed this maneuver before – him getting in and out of a canoe without tipping us over. I don’t do it myself. I’m always worried that we will tip over, and at the very least I will be deeply bruised along any section that gets pulled over the edge of the canoe, so I don’t do it. Knowing we would be in a canoe, and canoes tip easily, we left behind my hearing aids and our phones (Yes, I’m hard of hearing and have worn hearing aids since I turned 30…last year. Um, yeah, I’ll go with that.). We brought only a single waterproof camera.
Mitch is much stronger than I am, so getting back into the canoe was no problem. But as he tipped the canoe toward him to board, the left edge of the canoe dipped precipitously, below the surface of the water; the canoe took on a few buckets of water, making it dip further, and the upper edge tipped steeply up to greet me and knocked me right over and off, into the water. Mitch ended up back in the canoe, but I was dumped. And, we soon realized, so was our camera! Our camera with our pictures of Harry Potter’s Wizarding World at Universal Studios the week before, and the manatees earlier that day from the canoe.
Well, it’s waterproof, we thought, so we’ll find it! The water is only about 5 or 6 feet deep; it’ll be fine! Mitch paddled the canoe over to a (ostensibly off-limits) dock next to the observation deck. Several kayakers, boaters, and park visitors watched the whole scene as I reached the shore, stirring up the mucky bottom of the river, and hopped up onto the refuge dock (with its “No Trespassing” sign) to reboard the canoe.
Mitch headed back into the water to dive for the camera. The visibility in the water was next to zero as the silt had been churned up (by us? Manatees? Both?). Needless to say the manatees retreated a few tens of feet from the ruckus. Nobody on the observation deck seemed to outwardly laugh at us — not that we checked! — or even complain that we were scaring off the manatees. A couple in kayaks were kind enough to paddle off to retrieve a borrowed snorkel for Mitch to use. He dove again and again.
After maybe 35 minutes of repeated diving, Mitch surfaced with my sunglasses, which I hadn’t even noticed were missing. He spent almost an hour going down to try and spot the camera and feel along the mucky bottom for it. But it was futile. The camera was invisible. It had disappeared into the black mucky mayonnaise-like silt at the bottom.
We considered renting scuba equipment, but we were about an hour’s canoe ride from our car, it was late, and even if we had a tank, the water was so stirred up with silt that it would take hours and possibly even a day or two for it to clear. It was getting dark, and the next morning would be an early travel day for us as we were facing a six-hour drive to Pensacola for a critical service appointment for the RV. So we had to give up and leave our camera in 6-foot deep mucky bottom of the Homosassa River.
The kayaking couple who said they make their home on the river and volunteered at the refuge, took our names and contact information and promised to contact us if a red Olympus waterproof camera ever turned up. She also showed me the “float” attached to her waterproof camera, which we both sheepishly agreed was brilliant and had not even occurred to us. Why doesn’t Bet Buy include cheap little floats in the waterproof camera section!?
Manatees and Casualties
Mitch felt badly for losing his camera, and especially the pictures on it. He apologized for tipping me off the canoe, but I told him not to feel too badly. I wasn’t hurt (in fact I was already wet), his son and I both took lots of pictures at the Harry Potter park, I already posted pictures of manatees from the day before from my phone. All we lost were a few pictures of pelicans and the far-away, hairy backs of manatees. And, I said, it could have been worse: we could have lost the car keys. I could have ruined my hearing aids (they cost $3800 to replace). We could have lost our phones. The pictures on the lost camera were downloaded a couple weeks ago, so we didn’t lose pictures of anything before Key West. Besides, I told him, this will make a great story. It’ll be one of our best adventures to report after a year of RVing, you wait!
So we started paddling back to the campground, and lo and behold, saw the most spectacular mother-youngster manatee pair traveling in our direction. They were lit up by the late afternoon sun at a low angle. I could see the divots and cuts in the mother’s pan-shaped tail and the scars on her back from boat propellers. Was the little one trying to nurse under its mother’s arm? Are they avoiding us or coming right toward us? Where are they going? The pair swam right under our canoe several times, inches from my hand trailing in the water. We paddled gently alongside them, following the flat spots on the surface of the water left by the undulating of their great flat tails. I could see their faces, their little stumpy arms, their eyes nearly closed under their neck folds. And no camera! We didn’t attempt to get out of the canoe to swim with them, because they were heading somewhere, not just hanging out. Besides, no camera.
We are resolved that we must come back to Citrus County. And that’s the trouble with manatees.*
*Update, Dec. 2015: We DID go back to Citrus County a year later and did manage to swim with manatees! We went on a tour with River Adventures (that’s the way to do it) and had an amazing adventure, indeed! We captured this mother-baby manatee pair grazing:
In our next post Mitch’s Interim Report Card and Best of the Best of RV Life, Mitch grades our trip so far.