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Manatee Encounter – Crystal River, FL

Last fall I traveled to Florida to speak at the annual SEJ conference and decided to take a few days to visit the manatees of Crystal River. It wasn’t yet the high season for these animals to be in the area, but I had to give it a try. Besides, high season means more people in the water…

Because of my collaboration with La Prairie, I proposed we partner on a short video. The goal of this piece was simply to give the viewing audience an opportunity to be enchanted by sharing a moment with these wondrous animals. I must admit that my experience with manatees to date had been limited to watching them on TV. The only other time I came close to them was in the Amazon while I was filming a documentary for PBS, JM Cousteau’s Ocean Adventure series, but they are so skittish there that we only saw their hindquarters as they took off.

Once in Florida, Çapkin and I received all the instructions and precautions about the protocol, rules and regulations of our behavior around the manatees from the dive operator where we rented our boat. We set out with our cameras, but barely loaded the boat when we saw the telltale snout come up for air just off the dock, so we simply slid into the water right there. A mother and her calf were gently foraging on the riverbed. The visibility was terrible, but we managed to get wonderful images of eating behavior and some interaction between the two. They were obviously very used to a human presence and kept to their task of feeding as we floated above.

In the waters of Crystal Springs

We went to film elsewhere that day, but that had been such a special moment for us, seeing the interaction between the mother and her little one, that our day was already complete. The next day a storm was coming in which had us doubting we would get anything as the boats were confined to the dock. When you only have 2 days in the field to film, losing one of them is a big deal. We consulted with the dive operators about where we might slip into the water from shore and off we went to attempt a shore entrance.

This turned out to be our best move. Observing from land we saw movements under the water and up came two nostrils to breathe. We watched for a while to see if the manatee would stick around or leave before putting on our wetsuits and slipping into the turbid waters with our cameras. Looking under the surface, all we could see was a murky, muddy, particle-ridden panorama. I floated at the surface waiting, peeking just above the waterline to see if I could spot where the manatee was coming up for air.

As I was looking to my left, a large shape approached me from the right and before I could turn, a juvenile manatee had glided underneath me and gracefully pivoted to float just below me. I did all I could to stay steady and flat at the surface. As I was 6 months pregnant at the time, my belly hung below me and I had difficulty gauging how close to her it might be. I tried to gently move away, using only my hands to move and turn me. But she wanted to be right there and followed my movements…and then did a complete belly role right next to me. I was so surprised and in complete awe I temporarily forgot I was holding a small GoPro camera in my hand. The words of the dive operator came back to me- if they approach you and display obvious signs of anticipating an interaction, only then can you touch the manatee.

She came back around a second time and when she did another belly roll right next to me, I slowly reached out to scratch her gently as she turned. I think I stopped breathing…but luckily I made sure to point the camera right at her. The moment was nothing less than magical. As she calmly slipped off and swam away, I just floated there- filled with gratitude that she accorded me a moment.

It is incredible to think that these animals, though they have no natural predators, are endangered because of human behavior. One of the biggest threats we impose on them comes from boat propellers. How can we be so thoughtless, zipping through these shallow rivers with propellers that can lethally damage these creatures…all the more so, how can we do this while at the same time there are laws in place to protect them? Why do we not enforce stricter laws? Why do we not enforce the use of safer props? This area is a perfect example of humans and animals living in very close proximity – the very area the manatees come to seek warm waters (Crystal Springs) is a heavily populated area with homes built all around the edges of these same waters. It seems simple that we would respect their habitat and enjoy the fact that there are magical creatures in our backyard.

WATCH THE VIDEO: 

For more information on manatees and Crystal Springs:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manatee

http://www.floridastateparks.org/manateesprings/