My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Manatee Morning

I got an e-mail from Cindy telling me she was in Crystal River, Florida and did I want to come down and join her on a tour to swim with Manatees.  She was sleeping in her van at WalMarts so I first ascertained that I could fit in the back of my Honda Fit, so I could also camp for free,  then quickly replied with a big YES.

I went down a day early, since we had to be at Bird's Underwater Tours at 6:15 AM and it would take about three hours to get there. I researched places to paddle and decided to take my canoe with me.  Cindy planned to go to  the east side of the state but would come back across in the evening, so I needed to entertain myself.   I found a great place to put in on the Crystal River at Hunter's Spring Park. I paddled all over King's Bay, birding up and down many of the canals that gave all the homes there water access.  Then I headed up the river until I was a little past the Crystal River Archeology State Park.

When I got about 4 miles on my GPS, I headed back so I would be sure my shoulders would make it.  I had a wonderful time and took some great bird pictures.  But then....... I accidently threw them away before getting them safely in the file I'd made for them. AND I took another 250 pictures on top of them before realizing it, so I was sure I would not be able to use retrieval software to get them back.  But, take my word for it - this was a fun paddle.  I even ran right over a manatee, realized what it was, and came back over it to try to take its picture.  But while I was maneuvering, I disturbed it and it went too deep to see from the surface.  I found thirty-three species of birds, including pelicans and great blue herons that were already setting up housekeeping.

After I got back, I explored a few more state parks in the area, including Crystal River Archaeological State Park and Crystal River Preserve State Park.  I enjoyed the exercise of walking on the Eco-Walk Trail, even though not many birds were present.

In the evening, I  met Cindy at Walmart where we bought drinks at the Dunkin' Donut store inside, then sat around and got on the Internet, then edited pictures before "camping" out in our cars for the night there.

The next morning I got coffee and a breakfast sandwich at Dunkin' Donuts before driving to the tour shop. We were told to come dressed in our swim suits and the first thing we had to do was to take off our outer clothing and don wet suits, right in the store isles. Then we had to watch a movie on manatee etiquette before getting to board the boat and start off.

Manatee fashion wear

Loved this T-shirt
We headed out into the foggy almost dawn.  But the fog lifted as we arrived at the Three Sisters Springs. Cindy had accidentally gotten to Crystal River during the Manatee Festival a few days earlier, and had seen hundreds of manatees stacked into the springs.  But four days of cold were in the forecast, and Fish and Wildlife had closed the springs to boaters and swimmers to allow the manatees to stay as still as possible.  So we only got to see the manatees that were swimming in or out of the springs in less than clear water.  But we still had an outstanding experience.

Manatees appear to be fat but they really don't have much body fat - just HUGE lungs which allow them to stay underwater for about 20 minutes at a time. A few years ago, during an eight-day cold spell, ten percent of the manatees died of hypothermia when they got too hungry to remain in the warm (72 degree) springs.  So the closure was to help the manatees conserve energy so they would not have to swim to their feeding areas. 

Cindy watching the sun come up as we traveled to Three Sisters Springs
 The actual experience was unlike any other I've had. I was floating in the water with animals several times my size swimming within touching distance or actually coming up and touching me. I felt no fear, only awe and wonderment.  For the best feel for this trip, see Cindy's Blog. She bought a little underwater camera and got some great shots.  I have the light blue noodle and she also labeled the shots.

The radio on a radio-tagged manatee - I swam beside two different ones -
 the rope is attached just in front of their back flippers. 

Besides the manatees,  another highlight of our trip was getting to go out with Captain Donna.  She is another woman who is living her best life.  In the winter she works as a tour guide/captain for Birds Underwater Tours and also is a volunteer who helps bring in sick manatees for treatment or helps to recover dead ones so a necropsy can be done on them to determine why they died.   In the summer, she moves to North Carolina and teachers white water kayaking. She was very knowledgeable and passionate about manatees and about saving the species from extinction. She was probably close to retirement age but was living the life of young person.

Captain Donna visiting with the passengers 

The rule was that when the majority of the group were back on the boat, the rest of us HAD to come back.  I, of course, was one of the last three people back on the boat. The early quitters all got cold but I had found I could stay warm if I swam a patrol route along the ropes marking off the closed springs.  And there was one front spring that was still open.  I would sometimes stop there to warm up. 

The little curtained off corner held a porta potty and room to change back into our clothes.  I had a few bad minutes when I thought I'd accidently left my pants back at the tour store and would have to go all the way back with a towel wrapped over my underpants. But I'd really accidently taken them out of my dry bag and left them on the boat bench. Whew!

King's Bay was coming alive as we headed back around 10:30.  I think this was a kayaking tour, coming out to see manatees.  The woman who I thought might be the leader was far out in the front. 

 And for a couple of pictures of manatees taken from the land - here are two I took at Homosassa Springs State Park that afternoon.

This one has hyperextended his lungs so he can sunbathe
Manatees showing rear flippers - and a radio tag

If you love wildlife and water, this kind of trip should be on your bucket list. And I can definitely recommend Bird's Underwater Tours.  We felt we got more than our money's worth.  And of course you can always take your scuba equipment and boat and go by yourself.