Swimming with Gentle Giants

Star Tribune, 18 September 2005
© 2005 by Greg Breining

"GREG," Jon Kramer calls out calmly, as if trying to whisper and shout at once, "manatee." 

We swim out into a feeder creek leading into Florida's Crystal River. Breathing through my snorkel, I look underwater and soon I see it: a blimpy gray shape propelled by a broad flat tail. Jon is already at its side. 

I'm not a very experienced snorkeler and have never swum with such a huge animal. The underwater environment, where everything seems silent, slow and abstract makes the exprience all the stranger. As we swim, I reach out and run my fingers over the manatee's taut skin. The warmth surprises me; I'd forgotten for the moment they are warm-blooded mammals. 

I turn slightly and I'm startled by the sight of another, much smaller, manatee. Suddenly, the animals seem to kick into high gear. Then, I begin to see fins and wetsuits everywhere. I pop to the surface and look around. We are surrounded by other snorkelers. 

"She probably got freaked out when there got to be gazillions of people," Jon says. A pontoon, trailing a flotilla of canoes, pulls into the creek as news of the manatees spreads. Soon the channel is plugged. As Pogo might say, we have met the enemy and he is us.

My wife, Susan, and I are spending the week exploring Florida's magical springs with our friends Jon Kramer and Julie Martinez, Minnesota snowbirds who spend at least a couple months each winter in central Florida.

From coast to coast, the bellyband of Florida north of Orlando is a weedy, lively kind of landscape, mostly flat with scrubby piney woods and slapdash roadside gas stations and stores that have sprouted from Southern fiction. Scattered about are stylish towns of Victorian vintage, such as DeLand and Mount Dora. But most captivating are the lowland creeks and forests, models of Winslow Homer's watercolors, flanked by palms and moss-draped oaks, with ibises and anhingas in the branches and black vultures circling overhead.

Florida is underlain by pocked and fissured limestone. Upwellings of groundwater form crystal-clear springs of 72-degree water that attracts fish and other organisms from freshwater and salt. Jon, a freelance museum exhibit curator, and Julie, an artist and illustrator, thrill to the creatures they discover in these spring waters. Just a year ago, Jon and Julie were married on the banks of Silver Glen Spring. An hour before the ceremony, Jon led guests on a snorkel tour of the pool formed by the spring, where we were amazed by schools of crevalle jack and mullet, nesting tilapia, looming gar, largemouth bass and sunfish. After the wedding, on a canoe trip down the spring-run to Lake George, we spotted turtles and alligators of all sizes, as well as ospreys, anhingas, and a solitary raccoon scrounging for food.

But today we are searching for manatees, the lumbering half-ton vegetarians that live in coastal waters by summer and seek the warm water of inland springs in winter. Leaving the crowd behind, we anchor just outside the rope barring entry to the sanctuary known as Gator Hole. Gator Hole isn't as wild or ominous as it sounds; it is surrounded by groomed lawns and million-dollar homes. But because it gushes spring water, it attracts manatees. We all stand watch for ghostly gray shapes and upwellings from powerful tails. We speak softly and point off in various directions to confound anyone who might be watching. 

After several minutes, a big manatee swims out of the sanctuary. We slip into the water and try to follow, but the manatee dives and we are unable to keep it in sight. "I saw its mud trail down deep," Jon says as he surfaces. "He didn't want to have anything to do with us." Some manatees avoid people, he says, and some are indifferent. Others actually seek people out. Those are the manatees we are looking for.

We putt-putt into Kings Bay, an island-studded expanse of the Crystal River. After watching an osprey snatch and eviscerate a needlefish, we spot two manatees cruising beds of sea grass. As they circle the boat, we ease into the water and begin to mingle. Manatees may eat 100 pounds a day, and these aren't about to let us distract them. Underwater, I can hear the munch, munch as they tear at the vegetation. It is the sound of a cow grazing.

"THE MAGIC NUMBER IS 68," says Wayne Hartley, ranger at Blue Spring State Park, located along the St. Johns River between Orlando and Daytona Beach. When the St. Johns turns cold, manatees flock into Blue Spring, the second largest spring in Florida, gushing an average 100 million gallons daily. "The colder it gets below 68, the more manatees we see. Anything in the 50s is really going to get them in here." 

From the park's boardwalk, we look down into the spring-run—the third-of-a-mile-long stream that connects Blue Spring to the St. John River. In the blue-green water are sliders (a large turtle), gar, tilapia, exotic armored catfish, and even two-foot-long tarpon. A 10-foot gator basks on the far bank. Several manatees—nine to the best of our ability to count—doze over a patch of sand. Without waking, they slowly bob to the surface for a breath of air before sinking to the bottom. Two more swim by in front of us.

"There goes Phyllis and her little calf," Wayne says.

"How do gators and manatees get on?" I ask.

"They totally ignore one another," Hartley says. 

But manatees do have enemies. Cold water, for one. Prolonged cold causes tissue damage much like a burn or frostbite. Hence the migration of manatees to springs (and nowadays, power plant outflows). The concentration makes manatee watching feasible but leads to another problem: collisions with boats. During 2004, boats killed 69 Florida manatees, 25 percent of all deaths. If you subtract the 51 undetermined deaths, boat strikes accounted for nearly a third of all fatalities.

In fact, our own trip did not begin auspiciously. Fishing the Indian River in south Florida, we were speeding along the main channel (which is legal) when I spotted a gray-brown shape in the water ahead and waved my arm furiously. The driver cut the motor but we whacked the manatee all the same. We saw nothing more of the poor guy, but later, as we fished, a manatee circled the boat and snuffled at the anchor rope. 

"I know who you are and I know what you did," Susan intoned, in her best vengeful manatee voice.

The fact is, nearly every manatee has distinct lacerations and scars on its back. Hartley relies on these unique patterns to count the manatees visiting Blue Spring and track them year to year.

"Morning roll call starts between 8 and 10," Hartley says. He paddles upstream through the spring-run with a collection of manatee silhouettes marked up with boat scars. As he identifies each animal, be scribbles down its name. Most he knows by heart.

When Blue Spring became a state park in 1972, fewer than a dozen manatees took refuge in the spring. Back then, boats could motor into the spring-run. Now no boats are allowed. Swimming is permitted in the upper end of the run, and only when no manatees are around.

"We gave manatees just a little bit of protection," Hartley says. "That's really all we've done. No boats coming in and out. No people swimming up and down the run with them." The number of manatees visiting the refuge has grown steadily. By mid-February 2005, when we visited, 196 manatees had taken refuge at Blue Spring. 

Manatees are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Statewide, the population seems to be holding steady. A ground and air survey in early 2005 accounted for more than 3,100 manatees, evenly split between the Gulf and Atlantic waterways. It was the second-highest total on record, but the results are subject to plenty of second-guessing. "We don't really know what that number means," Hartley says.

Meanwhile, manatees valiantly soldier on despite horrible injuries. Hartley tells of one yearling female. "She was hit so bad she looked deformed." Four ribs bones poked out her side. "It looked really strange like someone had managed to stick her sideways into a meat grinder. Every year we found a new reason she was going to die." But she didn't and in fact produced four calves before she finally disappeared. 

MANATEE-BOAT ENCOUNTERS are usually to the manatee's detriment, but sometimes manatees turn the tables—even though they are probably the most docile animals of their size in existence. Twice Hartley has been surprised by the animals.

Once it was Howie, the other time Wanda. Neither animal knew anyone was nearby, a fact Hartley realized in each case a moment before the unsuspecting manatee grazed his canoe. Both episodes unfolded pretty much the same way: a flick of the tail, an upended canoe, Hartley in the water, and everything of value at the bottom of the spring-run.

Jon and Julie tell us their own fateful manatee encounter. They were canoeing near Blue Spring, when Julie called out to Jon that a sleeping manatee lay directly beneath them.

"Manatee coming up!" she announced, as the manatee rose for air.

"Manatee right under the canoe!" she advised. 

The animal bonked its noggin on the hull, and the water exploded. Julie flew upward as the canoe stood on end and then flipped over. No harm done, except to the camera which now lies at the bottom of the St. Johns River.

Undoubtedly it is with these stories in mind that Susan now shouts from the bow of our canoe with what would otherwise seem undue alarm: "Oh my god, oh my god! It's a manatee."

We are paddling a creek near Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. We have been watching ducks and mullet frolic in the shallows as herons, cormorants, vultures, kingfishers and anhingas went about their bloody business of obtaining food. We have just passed two men in a battered fishing boat, a young man casting a net from the bow. 

"We want to get a couple of mullet for dinner," growled the old man in the stern. Then he added in a conspiratorial voice, "What they don't tell you is that there are a couple of manatee lying up in that second spring hole to the right."

So we check it out, easing into the spring-run as if into a secret world, cloaked by live oak and Spanish moss, with water so clear we seem to levitate above the streambed. In eight feet of water, Susan spots the ghostly gray shape — no, two of them — directly beneath us and begins to holler. Suppressing unreasonable concerns of a mama manatee on the rampage, we paddle to one side and wait. Soon, the manatees rise to the surface—in unison as if by some secret signal between them. They gulp air, and sink again to the bottom, oblivious to our presence. We haven't brought snorkeling gear. Even if we had, I'm not sure we would have the heart to disturb them. Except for the two fishermen, by now far downstream, we are utterly alone. Just we and the manatees. For a quarter hour or more, we watch as the animals rise and fall to their own mysterious rhythms. Then we paddle off, content to let sleeping manatees lie. 

If You Go
Manatees begin concentrating in spring waters in mid-November and disperse again in March. Best viewing is January and February. Though springs are scattered throughout Florida, several of the best lie within a two-hour drive of Orlando.

Crystal River. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge: 1502 S.E. Kings Bay Drive, Crystal River, 352-563-2088. Rent boats and snorkeling equipment or arrange manatee snorkel tours through Plantation Dive Shop, 352-795-5797. Snorkel tours and equipment (but not boats) are also available through American Pro Diving Center, 800-291-3483,www.americanprodiving.com; and Bird's Underwater, 800-771-2763,www.birdsunderwater.com.

Blue Spring State Park. You can't swim with manatees at Blue Spring, but you can watch them from the boardwalk. Canoe the nearby St. Johns River to watch manatees, gators and birds. The spring-run provides excellent snorkeling when manatees aren't present; 386-775-3663. Riverboat tours are available; for reservations, call St. Johns River Cruises at 386-917-0724.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Watch captive convalescing and orphaned manatees. An underwater observatory provides up-close views of manatees, as well of many species of fish. Terrestrial exhibits include cougars, otters, bears, and hundreds of birds; 352-628-5343,www.floridastateparks.org/homosassasprings.

Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. The 31,000-acre refuge is a haven for manatees and many other kinds of wildlife; 352-563-2088. Rent canoes at Chassahowitzka River Campground, 352-382-2200.

Save the Manatee Club. Donate to protect manatees; 800-432-5646;www.savethemanatee.org.