Something important you should know about me is that I love animal encounters.
Feeding giraffes and elephants and stingrays? Done it.
Holding a koala? Check.
Getting peed on by an alligator? Yup.
As long as it doesn’t involve birds, I’m game for an up close and personal encounter.
Over Christmas break of 2012 my family traveled to Florida to escape the frozen tundra of Michigan in the winter. I had only a few demands during this trip.
Second: Swim with Manatees
My sister and I decided to use the Christmas money given by our grandparents and signed ourselves up for a trip to snorkel with the manatees off the Western shore of Florida.
Early in the morning, we left Orlando and drove to Crystal Springs. After a little over an hour in the car, we arrived. Quickly sliding into our wetsuits, we joined our group to watch an informational video.
After getting the low-down on the conservation of the manatees, my sister and I excitedly took our seats on our pontoon boat. Once everyone was on board, the guide idled out to a roped off section of water marked “Manatee Sanctuary”. He shut the engine off about 10 feet outside the ropes and explained the rules to us: No kicking or splashing. Don’t try to talk through your snorkel. Don’t hang on to the manatees. Don’t try to surf on the manatees.
“Now, who wants to go in first?”
“I DO!” my sister shouted. Adorned with mask, snorkel, flippers and an inflatable life vest, my sister waddle-ran to the front of the boat. Not wanting to miss out, I quickly followed behind.
I eased myself into the water and shivered. For Florida water, it was quite chilly. I fixed my mask around my eyes, placed my face into the water…and panicked.
I couldn’t see anything. The water was murky and brown. Nothing like the crystal clear waters that the informational video had pictured.
The panic made me thrash to the surface, kicking water up with me. I heard our guide yell to me “Young lady! Do not splash! You will scare the manatees away!”
I pretended not to hear him. The splashing was involuntary. Cool your jets, guy.
I calmly placed my face back into the water and started ahead of me, trying to grasp a sense of depth perception. I swam around the side of the boat and found my sister. Squinting ahead of my I tried to make out some kind of figure. As it moved closer, the figure became a grey-greenish blob which moved slowly across my field of vision.
I looked around me and saw the rest of the group clumped around another area of the water. I swam over to see what was there.
Manatees slowly glided through the water around them. I reached my arm out as one drifted by. My fingers slid across its algae-covered skin, and I was in love. Another swam by and and I waved my whole hand across its back. As I floated at the surface of the water I watched the manatees interact with the other snorkelers. Some just swam by, unfazed, while others played and rolled onto their backs for belly rubs.
As I looked ahead of me, I saw one swimming right in my direction. I smiled and put my arms out, as if to receive a manatee-hug. She swam right at me and my hands gently landed on either side of her face.
Our eyes locked, and I saw in her such a gentle peacefulness. Her black and beady eyes saw into me and I felt a great calmness wash over me. She was just as curious about me as I was about her. She continued to swim forward, pressing against my hands and pushing me backwards through the water.
She stopped and I slowly rubbed my hand against the side of her face and whispered that she was beautiful. She stared at me just a few seconds longer as if to acknowledge our new friendship, before she slowly dove downward and out of my sight.
With as many animal encounters as I’ve had, this one holds a special place in my heart. This was the only time that I was an intruder in the animals’ natural space, and this manatee accepted me with welcome, nubby little arms.
Thoughts? Questions? Comment below!