Diving with manatees

My wife signed us up to go diving with manatees. At 5:30 in the morning.

Manatees, apparently, are early risers. Plus we had to allow enough time to drive to the dive shop, procure state-of-the-art dive suits suitable for a wilderness encounter in the remote jungle coastlands of their Gulf Coast habitat, plus view the federally-mandated Manatee Orientation video. Then we drove to the Crystal River. Manatee headquarters.

By the time we followed the pontoon boat trailer to the launch site deep in the Florida wilderness, it was light out. And by the time we had located our prey and lowered ourselves into the tepid freshwater, the sun was actually blindingly up just over the trees. And the houses. And the driveways. And the backyard docks.

Manatees, it seems, are a lot like every other modern Floridian. They want to live seaside, but they want the suburban amenities, too. The only thing they’re missing is the Lexus in the drive.

Sean, our captain, was an expert manatee-finder. They aren’t that easy to see, because they just make a little swirl when they come up to breathe about one second every three minutes. They can totally hide in four feet of water. Like they’re not even there. Even though they weigh 900 pounds, are eight to ten feet long, and have mermaid tails. If you lived in one of the houses that line their favorite river areas you could watch them from your backyard gazebo. Except you can’t see them.

It’s not even easy to see them when you’re in the water with them. Imagine you are in the water with your mask pressed tightly to your forehead, the little glass window affording you a ringside seat. You’re sucking air through a plastic tube, while hoping to keep most of the river water out of your mouth. Mostly it’s working.

You’re hanging at the surface, looking down at gray swirls below. Nine out of ten gray swirls are silty mud churned up from the bottom by errant swim fins. Your own errant swim fins. One of ten swirls is a manatee, but you’re not absolutely sure until you reach your hand out and touch. Yep, manatee. They feel like an old leather couch sadly neglected.

A manatee looks like a sausage with a face. It’s kind of a so-homely-it’s-cute face, but it doesn’t matter because they swim face down and you’re above them at the surface, the full-sun square-in-the-face surface. You’re carefully peering into churning mud. They’re right there! Less than four feet away, they’re still hard to spot. That’s why it’s good to have an expert. The expert is Sean, who wields a video camera while locating manatees he apparently knows as somewhat-close friends. “I haven’t been out here in over a week,” he says by way of explanation. He’s not sure who’s home. Most of the winter manatees have already left. Those still here are the diehard Florida coasters. This all sounds strangely familiar.

The manatees that are here are friendly though. They don’t mind vacationing tourists in their backyards. Not sure about the homeowners whose backyards are twenty meters away from our anchored pontoon craft. We all speak in quiet voices. There are just five of us including our captain who is in the water with us, my wife and myself, and a Dad-and-brave-adult-daughter combo. You can tell she’s brave, because, though she’s an experienced diver, she’s willing to get into the water with the rest of us. And loan out her working mask and snorkel to her Dad who is having Major Equipment Problems. Mostly he just stands there, in four feet of water, but he can still see the manatees almost as well as us mask-clad plastic-tube-suckers. Because the manatees are right here! They swim right up to you and brush within arms reach, hoping to get petted on their leathery backs. As advertised, they’re gentle. It’s almost become their scientific name, like a genus and species: mantatees they’resogentle.

Sure, they’re a little over weight, aren’t we all? (They’ve gone vegan, but I gotta say it’s not working for them.)

But they’re hanging in the Florida wetlands. It’s their habitat. They just want it the way they want it. Plus they can live to 60.

So, hey, they fit right in.

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