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Swimming With the Big Guys
By Kathleen Ganster

Like most women, I hate anything that reveals my bumps and bulges so the prospect of donning a wetsuit was less than appealing to me. But it was also necessary in order to swim with manatees and swim with them I would, so on went the wetsuit.

The prospect of swimming with manatees may not be on the top of most people’s thing-to-do list but it is actually a very big tourist attraction in Florida. A nature girl from way back, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about these endangered animals. Truth be told, I was afraid that it would be too much like a circus – people swimming, staring and crowding the animals but I found quite the opposite. When people were swimming with these gentle giants, they seem to develop a sort of awe and respect. “Every boater should have to do this before they get a boating license,” said one diver.

To do the actual swimming with the manatees, we went with an organized group through Plantation Dive Shop in Crystal River, Citrus County in Florida. They supply you with the wetsuit, fins, mask and snorkel if necessary. I don’t like the idea of sharing a snorkel and fortunately, my partner Branson, had packed his but opted not to go on the dive. We went out on the boat very early in the morning because that is apparently a good time of day to see them and there are fewer people on the river. I suppose you could do all of this on your own if you have the equipment and boat – in fact many local people do – but for tourists, this really is the best method.

On top of loving most animals and being what I would categorize as an environmentalist, I love to swim and snorkel. Some of the others in the group had never snorkeled before. It was a definite benefit to know what I was doing in the department. Others were also weak swimmers, which limited their experience and could have also interfered with the rest of ours’. The guide told us that manatees are shy and don’t like a lot of noise. Those thrashing about in the water made a lot of racket. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to phase many of the manatees.

For those of you outside of Florida, manatees (these are actually West Indian manatees) are huge animals that resemble a seal - sort of. As one who grew up with English bulldogs, I am very familiar with the “they are so ugly, they are cute” syndrome and manatees fall into that category. They are gray and can grow up to 13 feet and weigh over 3,000 pounds. If they were moving around on the ground, they would probably be much scarier. As it is, they are very gentle and slow moving in the water. When I first swam up to one, I was literally dwarfed by her size. My 5’5” and 120 pounds seemed like nothing next to her but yet I wasn’t at all afraid. Manatees are totally harmless which seems remarkable, given their size.

Her baby then came over to me, as curious about me as I was about him. It was so fabulous because he was just like a puppy. I scratched him under his chin and I swear you could see him grinning. He just floated there, wanting more. While swimming underwater with them, I could hear them calling each other. The mothers will often call for the babies (officially known as calves) and the sounds remind me of those I have heard made by dolphins.

It was amazing to see the calves nursing as they just floated along with the cows. They move so slow, it was an easy process.

Their skin is wrinkly and thick and many are marked with scars from where they have been injured from boats. The guide told us that it is very unusual to see adult manatees without at least one of these scars.

It is estimated that there are only about 1,200 West Indian manatees in the United States. They migrate to warmer waters in the winter, especially in southern Florida waters but in the summer they have been seen as far north as Virginia and North and South Carolina.

The most dangerous creature for the manatee to encounter is man. Many are injured from boats and fishing related accidents such as swallowing fish hooks and line.

Over the past few years, there has been a concentrated effort to raise awareness about the manatees and to protect them. There are many sanctuaries off-limits to humans and speed limits are enforced in some designated manatee habitat areas. They are also protected by several acts including the Endangered Species Act.

The gentle giants are so impressive by their size and manner; it is difficult not to fall in love with them and to feel, well, protective. It was a great experience, wet suit, bulges and all.

Citrus County is north east of Tampa, about one hour. For more information, contact Citrus County Tourist Development Council at 1-800-587-6667 or www.visitcitrus.com.

To contact Kathleen Ganster email her at ganster@connecttime.ne or www.thetravelingbag.com.

Images by Branson Dunn
 
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