Music: “Sheik Of Araby” by Smokey Hormel For best video quality click “HD“Meditating on the Manatee: Somehow, sailors of yore mistook these blunt-nosed teddy-bears-of-the-seas for mermaids. Actually they are more closely related to elephants. Twelve months on a small ship without women could convince you otherwise though, I guess. Although they seem to be in perpetual slow-motion, manatees do keep pretty busy. They are voracious herbivores. Adults can easily consume a hundred and fifty pounds of mostly-floating vegetation each day. These docile, 1000-pound beauties really have only one enemy, and it is us. Last year boat strikes killed sixty-eight manatees (out of a total of 371 reported deaths: Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Report), plus another dozen died from getting caught in flood gates or canal locks, or entanglement in debris, like discarded fishing line and rope. Manatees are protected by three laws: the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978.
Happily, their population has been growing in recent years. Come winter, manatees leave the cooling coastal waters for the relative warmth of rivers and springs. Three Sisters Spring on Crystal River, on the central-Gulf coast of Florida, has long been one of their favorite hangouts. This year record numbers have been coming in to Three Sisters, so much so that on some days wildlife officials have closed the spring to snorkelers. That was the case one Monday last month when my niece, Dr. Cameron McNabb, and I were there, but we did get to see them out in the river.
There are some common-sense rules for swimming with manatees: no SCUBA gear, don’t crowd them, don’t chase them, and don’t move aggressively around them; if you pet them—do so sparingly and with just one hand. Most manatees seem at ease with just a few people swimming with them, and some are even gregarious—swimming right up to you. But it becomes a problem when lots of people crowd into their refuges—sometimes diverting them from the warmer springs. Educating the public about manatees has been tremendously successful in the effort to protect them, but the double-edged sword is that it has also generated more interest in seeing them in person—in recent years, a lot more interest. Because of this, Save The Manatees has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make several of the springs in Crystal River/Kings Bay (including Three Sisters Spring) permanent “no people” manatee sanctuaries, and to implement a “no-touch” policy for manatees outside the springs.
I’ve swum with manatees twice in Crystal River, and feel privileged to have been able to do so. The primal human-animal bond that you feel is extraordinary. And I know I have a better appreciation for them, having done it. But I may have communed with the manatees at Crystal River for the last time. With mixed feelings I have to confess: That is likely a good thing.