Swimming with Florida manatees

NARRATOR>>On a lovely December morning,
I set out with Captain Stacy Dunn on her three-hour manatee tour in Kings Bay, Florida. My hope is that we’ll have a chance to swim
near at least one of the area’s enormous aquatic mammals, and the chances of this happening are excellent. Though some endangered Florida manatees are
present in Kings Bay’s spring-fed waters year-round, between roughly mid-November and late March
each year, their numbers swell to around 500. The species, a sub-species of the West Indian
manatee, come to escape the Gulf of Mexico’s chilly waters, and their presence is all about survival. CAPTAIN STACY>>They can get hypothermia
and cold stress if they’re in cold water, so they have to come here and stay in the
warm springs, which are 72 degrees (Fahrenheit). That’s what Mother Earth keeps them at. NARRATOR>>We get our first glimpse of these
gigantic creatures on the outskirts of one of the seven manatee sanctuaries that provide critical habitat within the Kings
Bay Manatee Refuge. During peak season, people aren’t allowed
within these sanctuaries. We are, however, allowed to swim in Three
Sisters Springs, a complex of three spring areas and the most
popular place for manatee encounters. Here, the manatees are visible as soon as
we enter the water, initially trailing our movements and then
continuing swiftly beneath us towards the springs. As I make my way through the passage leading
to the springs, a mother and calf also swim past. At birth, calves weigh about 30 kilos.
Heavy, yes, but not so much for creatures that average over 540 kilos and can weigh
over 1500 kilograms. CAPTAIN STACY>>The ones in the wild that
have to fend for themselves, their top weight when we do health assessments,
which Mike and I are very involved in, is around 2200 pounds. NARRATOR>>As we reach the springs, the waters
become magnificently clear, revealing several resting individuals who
rise occasionally to breath. Although manatees can hold their breath for
up to 20 minutes, they usually surface every 3-5 minutes. Heeding Stacey’s directions, we remain on
the water’s surface, calmly observing these beauties. Federal and state laws protect this species,
and disturbing or touching a resting manatee is prohibited throughout the refuge. Quite a few other activities are also off
limits, including chasing, riding, pinching, poking, cornering, and surrounding them. While most of the 15 or so manatees present
in this section of the springs are either resting or otherwise disinterested in our
presence, a few are quite friendly. We’re not supposed to initiate contact,
but some extroverts have no qualms about checking us out fully. Their antics allow me to get a good look at
their flippers, which have 3-4 fingernails, as well as their muscular lips, which are
capable of manipulating food. The cheeky vegetarians seem to smile at times,
but their grins aren’t toothy. CAPTAIN STACY>>They have teeth, but they’re
called rotating molars and they sit way back in their jaw bone, so you’ll never be able to see them. NARRATOR>>Eventually, one manatee nuzzles
me — an amazing experience, at first. When it pulls my hair, though, I’m reminded
that these gentle but wild animals are potentially powerful, and, while the ‘no contact’ recommendation
is intended to protect the manatees, it probably benefits their human visitors
as well. Whether resting or active, these adorable,
funny mermaids are indeed mesmerising, and I leave the water on a natural high. And though some might classify this as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’
sort of experience, given the tour’s reasonable price, I’m
seriously tempted to come along again tomorrow.

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