Adopting the Philosophy of the Manatees

“It’s twenty-seven degrees? No, no. There’s no way in hell I’m getting into water when it’s twenty-seven degrees out. Isn’t it supposed to be warm in Florida?”

“But there’s manatees, Alyssa. Manatees! You’ve been talking non-stop about swimming with them this whole trip,” my boyfriend said as he turned on the seat warmers. “Don’t you remember all those articles we read about manatees needing warm water temperatures to survive? I bet you six dollars and three cents that the water temperature is warmer than the air temperature.”

After enduring another cold and snowy Chicago winter, taking a trip to warm and sunny Florida seemed like the perfect way to spend Valentine’s Day.  It was just my luck to plan an outdoor adventure during a record-setting cold front.

My mind wandered to a chapter in 5th grade science class about manatees where I first learned about the endangered creatures. I vividly remembered Mrs. Dolan’s lesson about manatees’ habitat, how they communicated, and conservation laws that protect the species. Years later,  After a thorough review of all the touristy websites, I booked a tour with American Pro Diving to snorkel with manatees in the Homosassa River.

Shortly after I booked and pre-paid for a fun-filled day of manatee encounters, my boyfriend came across an article alleging that our guide company was abusive towards these endangered animals. The authors claimed to have seen video footage of mother manatees being separated by their calves and children carelessly riding on top of them. This made me uneasy but then again, how much stake can you really put in four-year-old articles posted on the Internet by strangers?

After we arrived at the gear shop, we squeezed into wet suits, and laughed at each other while trying on snorkels and flippers in fron of the mirror. Our guide introduced himself, as well as the other family of five that would be joining our tour. Then we all sat down in the shop to watch an informational video about the proper way to interact with the manatees before boarding the boat.

It was freezing cold outside, but our guide kept reassuring us that once we got in the water that we would be much more comfortable. After a short ride, the boat stopped and we were instructed one by one to take the ladder down the water and start looking for manatees.

We didn’t exactly have to look for them at all, as the manatees were everywhere. Within a few minutes, one swam up and bumped into me and I saw another underneath of me. I couldn’t stop squealing in a wild combination of excitement and surprise. Their skin was smooth and slimy. Their bodies were massive. Their demeanor was calm and peaceful.

This is also the moment that I learned that my boyfriend was terrified of water. I couldn’t believe he didn’t tell me this before we even set out on this trip. But there he was…clinging on to the side of the boat with his eyes squeezed shut, his chest rising and falling rapidly, and his whole body shaking.

I assumed that he was having a miserable time and that he wouldn’t even get to see a manatee at all. Little did I know, manatees love the sides of boats. As I swam over to keep him company, I saw that he was surrounded by three manatees that seemed to be hugging him with comforting affection. Once I saw that he was laughing and taking photos with his underwater camera, I felt I could go exploring the river to meet as many of these creatures as I could.

Our guide and the other family followed the basic rules of manatee encounters: let them come to you first because they are friendly and they will anyway, whether you want them to or not. The water temperature was a comfortable seventy degrees and I hated the thought of leaving this warm water and these magnificently strange creatures.

But alas, we only paid for a three-hour tour so before we knew it, our guide was calling us back to the boat and taking his final video shots of our interactions. Everyone climbed back up the ladder, toweled off, and warmed up with some extra layers and some hot chocolate on board.

At first, I was worried about manatee abuse, but there was none. Then, I was worried about the cold temperatures, but the water was the most comfortable place we could be. Finally, I was worried about my non-aquatic boyfriend, but he had as much fun as I did and got some spectacular photos.

After docking the boat and walking back into the gear shop, I fell in love with a plush manatee backpack from the gift shop that was clearly meant for child. However, it reminded me of how the manatees made me smile as a kid back in science class and even today.

My new manatee backpack accompanied my boyfriend and I, as we bundled up in hats and gloves to lounge on the beach. For once, I wasn’t worried that sand was too chilly or that we didn’t have beach towels. Those blob-like creatures helped me remember that there’s no room for worry on vacation.

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