For Julie’s birthday the Muumuus* went swimming with the manatees. We met at 7am at Julie’s house on a cold, beautiful, clear-blue-sky morning. Julie drove and we talked or were silent, watching the quiet Florida scenery on the flat, straight road to Crystal River.
The town is a couple of miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, by King’s Bay; Crystal River runs from the bay out to the Gulf. Manatees winter there to take advantage of the constant 70- degree temperature of the many springs in the river, and at least a dozen companies run manatee tours.
We signed in with our company and wandered through the souvenirs. Manatees with winsome smiles in ceramic, pewter, and lurid plush Manatees on T shirts, refrigerator magnets, pencils, key rings. Notecards with photos of manatees. I bought a book about manatees, and iridescent manatee stickers for Amanda. The trouble with manatee-shaped souvenirs is that manatees are kind of shapeless - like huge baked potatoes.
We struggled into our wetsuits in changing rooms with no embarassing mirrors, but we asked someone to take a picture. We watched a fifteen minute video about manatees and how to swim with them. Although their numbers have increased remarkably since no-wake rules were implemented in the rivers, Florida manatees are still an endangered species, and it is quite a privilege to be able to interact with them. You’re not allowed to approach or pursue them, but if they come to you, you may touch them with one open hand, avoiding their genital area and their nipples, which are under the flippers. You can’t feed them, ride them, poke them, stand on them. You don’t dive, but lie on the surface and watch. You don’t walk around on the bottom, which stirs up silt and makes viewing difficult.
We boarded a small pontoon boat with a bench along each side of the enclosed cabin. There was a chemical bucket for a toilet, with a strong smell of pee, and a curtain hanging from a ring for a dressing room. Our companions were twin sisters - one a U.S. park ranger, the other a retired military psychiatrist.
And then there was our boat captain, an old hippie with grey hair in a pony tail. He and his wetsuit were equally full of himself. “I’m Captain Jack. They call me Swamp Man; they call me Gator Man. I wrestle alligators.” As he took us back to the dock, he said, “If you want to know more about me, you can visit my website.” But he knew and shared a lot of information about the manatees.
It was President’s Day holiday, the busiest weekend of the year. At the springs there were hordes of tour boats and kayaks surrounded by floating snorkelers, some in wetsuits, some not. The boat captains watched their groups carefully. The park rangers are out on the water too, and if they see anyone violating the rules, the fines are steep, for the violator and possibly for the captain. Captain Jack watched out for everyone in his vicinity, and instructed them in friendly fashion if they were breaking any rules.
He dropped anchor a little distance from the other boats and we swam away. Underneath me was a huge sleeping manatee; I circled above her for a bit, happy. Then Captain Jack signaled to all of us to swim down toward the refuge, marked with a rope and buoys. Just inside the rope were forty or fifty manatees, sleeping. Just outside the rope were a hundred snorkelers, waiting.
Every once in a while two or three manatees would swim out of the refuge past the people, and we could reach out and pat them. I had been intructed that if they came up and bumped me, or even nuzzled or hugged me, I shouldn’t panic, but just enjoy it. One swam underneath me a couple of inches from my belly. One bumped as she swam past. I saw one baby nuzzling her mother, with another next to them lying on its back, flippers waving. Three big ones slept beneath me, big ovoid lumps, with scarred skin.
After maybe forty minutes I was cold to the core, and ready to go back to the boat. Iris was ready too. As we climbed the ladder she said, “They’re kind of stupid,” but maybe we’re the stupid ones. Manatees don’t struggle to get the kids off to school, write memos, rush to meetings, read distressing newspapers, worry about fats and carbs and war-mongers. They lie sleeping on the bottom, drift to the surface every ten minutes or so to take a breath, then slowly sink to the bottom again, still asleep. When they wake up, they float around eating plants.
Back on the boat, half shielded by the curtain, I struggled out of my wetsuit, put on dry clothes and sat in the sun. Iris pulled out her food supplies: crackers and hummus and fresh blackberries. The other women returned, with Captain Jack, and everyone stripped and dried and dressed. We were tired out but happy, chatting and snacking, half-listening to Captain Jack’s bragging. As we left the spring we began singing ‘When I’m 64.’ I reproached us for annoying the manatees, but Captain Jack said that actually they love singing, and when girls giggle they draw near.
We found a crowded restaurant for lunch. I sat in the sun, with hot tea. We talked of everything, and reveled in our friendship. I fell asleep on the drive home. We stopped for frozen yoghurt, but I was still cold inside, and didn’t even want to taste it.
It was a lovely day, a perfect birthday celebration. I liked watching the manatees. But I’m not sure about the whole idea. I don’t recall the manatees saying, “Please join us in the water for a morning of frolic.” I was distinctly aware that we had not been invited.
We destroy their habitat, slash them with boat propellors, and then intrude into the bit of territory they can still call their own. The tour operators justify the intrusion by saying that the direct contact with the beasts sensitizes people to their plight, and will help efforts to protect them. I don’t know. I’d say half the people who swim with manatees are already sensitive to their plight. The other half think they are big toys and chase and poke them when no one is looking. Iris had gone once before, and said the children on the tour all went in the water while their parents sat dry on the boat and urged them to do all the things the tour guide had forbidden.
My attitude towards animals is inconsistent. My mind says all species are equally valuable, each a unique and irreplaceable result of millions of years of evolution. My heart values humans more than other animals, probably because I am one.
On a 1 to 10 scale I probably rate a 7 as a pet mom. I take my pets to the vet and feed them good food. But I don’t give them as much attention as I should, especially our dog Trisket. When our 14-year-old cat suddenly stopped eating and blood tests revealed nothing, I declined further diagnostic tests and had her euthanized, with a moderate amount of anguish. It was partly the unwillingness to put her through all kinds of misery which she was incapable of understanding, but it was also the money and bother. I say I love my pets, but there is no comparison to the attention I lavish on Amanda, and I would certainly address a human health crisis more aggressively.
Amanda and I went to see The Big Miracle. It is a lovely, feel-good movie about the time Big Oil, Greenpeace, the Reagan Aministration, the Russians, and an Inuit village all worked together to save three whales trapped under Alaskan ice. It was suspenseful to the very end, even though you knew there wouldn’t have been a movie if they’d failed. But really - all that effort to save three whales, while we destroy the ocean?
As a species we are making the earth uninhabitable for ourselves and everybody else. We are obliged to stop (which we won’t) and rectify (which we can’t). Maybe we should stop tromping around in the bit of space they have left.
*For more about the Muumuu Mamas click
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