Thursday, November 20, 2008

The REAL Mermaids

I am not sure why, but in the four years my parents have lived within a few hours of the infamous Manatee spot, Crystal River, I have never headed up to see them. Not that I don’t absolutely love manatees. In fact, I kayak throughout the mangroves near my parents house every time I am there hoping to get a glimpse of one. And while on the jetski, I am constantly peering into the water desperate to see that telltale grey body just under the surface.
Funny, whenever you have out of town visitors, you take the time to explore the place you live in – seemingly taking for granted all it has to offer until a visit from a guest requires a deeper look.

So, with Paul in Florida, I decided we had to see the Manatees.

We got up at the crack of dawn to temperatures my South African friend considered frigid and my mom who I convinced to come with us (ok, I needed a hat and gloves too, but…) and drove three hours into seemingly, the middle of nowhere. We finally arrived at a rather un-inspiring place, ready to rent our pontoon boat and see some “mermaids”. The pontoon boat was a luxury I am not often afforded – my own boat and a TON of room to spread out all the gear. Oh, and not to mention, perfectly CALM seas. This alone was heaven.

So, we loaded up and headed to the place on the map that the marina assured us Manatees would be. A few weeks later, the area would be off limits to boaters and swimmers, allowing us a unique opportunity to see the Manatees in their protected habitat.

We were worried that we would not see any Manatees – given that we were early in the cycle and the water was a bit murky. My decision to rent my own boat was also a bit questionable – as boat operators probably knew right where there were. When I told Paul about my plan, there were definitely a few eyebrows raised, but he knows when to challenge me. so there we were, Paul getting ready to tell me “I told you so”, freezing, and surrounded by muddy water.

We dropped the anchor and began lack-lusterly setting up, when I looked down on the anchor line to see a Manatee had swum up to greet us and rub herself on the anchor line. The Manatee was so playful and relaxed – and seemingly, just as curious of us as we were of her.

I couldn’t wait to get in the water, and the Manatee was beckoning me in by swimming under the ladder.

Finally it was time to get in. I began swimming towards the marshy shore, and it wasn’t long before I had my first visitors.

At first, they startled me, the large apparitions appearing out of no where, suddenly right next to me, with tiny eyes and a huge, huge body covered with long, sparsely spread hairs. I couldn’t believe how interactive they were. And how much some of them seemed to crave touch.

And how huge they are. They average 900 - 1200 lb and are 9-10 feet in length. I think they were as wide as they were long.

I have always refrained from interaction with an animal unless the animal seeks it out. And in this case, many of the manatees were tucking their noses up under my arms, brushing my legs as they swam next to me, and nudging my hands. Some of the manatees would come and check me out – others were looking for some quality time together. Each had its own very distinct personality. One was particularly smitten with Paul and everytime I turned around, she was holding on to his leg while he desperately tried to film me and carry around a one-ton Manatee on his thigh.

The West Indian manatee was discovered in the 1500s by Spanish explorers that hunted them for their meat, hide, and oils. Hunted almost to extinction, Florida banned the hunting of manatees in 1893. The official "season" for Florida Manatee is October 15th to March 31st. But there are Manatee that stay in certain areas all year.

Fossil remains of manatee ancestors show they have inhabited Florida for about 45 million years. The West Indian Manatee is one of four species of Manatees and Dugongs.

In warmer months manatees spend most of their time at sea and out of harm's way, but from October they 15th to March 31st, the colder weather drives them inland to places where can find warm water. Florida's Crystal River supports the largest concentration. Indeed, we saw over 25 different manatees – and at least 15 boats full of tourists looking to experience them.

Manatees are gentle, slow-moving graceful swimmers. Most of their time is spent eating, resting and in travel at depths of 3 – 7 feet. We happened upon many eating and also sleeping. And, they spend a lot of time eating, as they consume 10-15% of their body weight daily eating the sea grass below and other aquatic plants.

You probably won’t believe it, but the manatees closest relatives are elephants, aardvarks and hyraxes. You can see their large prehensile upper lip is a bit like a trunk – and they use it like an elephant would for gathering food and also social interactions & communications. One manatee kept taking my hand and placing it on its lips – trying to communicate in some way for sure.

We had a chance to see a baby as well, which was very exciting. You could tell the baby was quite curious, but mom didn’t want us near her. We kept our distance and respected mom’s wishes. The reproductive rate for the manatee is slow. Female manatees are not sexually mature till they are about four years old, and males, nine years old. One calf is born every 2-3 years and the gestation period is about 13 months. Manatees breed year round in Florida, however most of the calves are born in the spring and summer months. At birth the calf measures about 4 to 4.5ft and weighs about 60-70 pounds. They can even swim at the surface of the water by themselves!

Florida Manatees have been known to live up to 60 years, and they can move freely between fresh and salt water. You could see that some of them had much algae and growth on their skin and others did not. I wonder if that had to do with age, activity level or even the type of waters they lived in.

Manatees are also believed to have the ability to see in color, and though their eyes were quite small, I could see such intelligence in them. It was as if they could look into your soul.

And they are indeed very intelligent. Manatees are capable of understanding discrimination tasks, and show signs of complex associated learning and advanced long term memory. Similar to dolphins and seals.

The population of manatees in Florida is thought to be between 1,000 and 3,000, yet population estimates are very difficult.

Their slow-moving, curious nature, coupled with dense coastal development, has led to a number of violent collisions with boat propellers, leading frequently to maiming, disfigurement, and even death. As a result, a large portion of manatees have many propeller scars on their backs and they are now even recognized uniquely by their scar patterns.

Even the babies we saw all had propeller marks on them.

You can see the postings everywhere, warning boaters that manatee zones are no wake zones. Though, you frequently see boaters speeding through these zones. And Manatees don’t limit themselves to the zones. We happened upon one Manatee in a 35 mph zone swimming slowly and carelessly through it.

Until I saw the manatees, I didn’t realize I was looking for the wrong thing… A tell tale “hmpphff” sound and a glimpse at their large snout when they come up for a breath – that is what you look for. We stopped on the jetski in the MIDDLE of a busy boating lane and quickly

In 2007, a University of Florida study found that more than half of boat drivers in Volusia County, Florida sped through marked conservation zones despite their professed support for the endangered animals. The police boats are constantly on patrol looking for violaters.

There are other threats too…

Manatees occasionally ingest fishing gear (hooks, metal weights, etc.) while feeding which clog the animal's digestive system and slowly kill the animal.

Manatees are also vulnerable to red tides—blooms of algae which leach oxygen from the water.

And manatees are losing habitat. You can see how the areas they chose to inhabit make for prime real estate developments.

The manatee is protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Specials Act of 1973, which make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal. The manatee is also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which states: "It is unlawful for any person, at any time, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass or disturb any manatee."

While we are allowed to swim with manatees in Crystal River, there is much controversy surrounding this. Manatees are the only endangered animal you can get in the water with – dolphins and whales are protected from us. There have been numerous charges of people harassing and disturbing the manatees in addition to the concern about repeated motorboat strikes causing the maiming, disfiguring, and death of manatees all across the Florida coast, and this privilege of swimming with wild manatees may be soon repealed.

In 2003, a population model was released by the U.S. Geological Survey predicted an extremely grave situation for manatees – if extreme measures were not taken to protect them, they would be extinct in less than 100 years.

So sad that a magnificent animal may not be around for our children’s children to enjoy. My day with the manatees was so magical, I could barely drag myself out of the water. If not for the requirement to return the boat by 4:30 pm, I would have been there all evening.

It is my hope that we work together so generations to come can enjoy these magnificent creatures. I know that from now on, whenever I am in Florida, I am heading out to see my new best friends. Oh, and Paul’s new (rather large) girlfriend.

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