I’ve just shared an enormous bath with several dozen manatees. We’ve been lounging around together in an artesian spring in Crystal River, just a few hours drive and a world away from Orlando.
A manatee is basically an underwater cow. It spends most of its time munching aquatic plants, staring into the middle distance or just snoozing. Imagine a finely wrinkled, grey-brown seal that’s been pumped full of air to make it really rotund, then add a couple of spatulate flippers, a huge flattened tail, and extraordinarily droopy upper lips that look as if they once belonged to a bloodhound and you’ll get the picture. It would be hard to invent a weirder, more wonderful creature.
Manatees gather in Crystal River because the water is relatively warm. They don’t like the cold and lose their body heat quickly; if they lose too much, they become vulnerable to infection and could die. So every winter, some 2000-3000 of them huddle together at more than 20 different warm-water sources up and down Florida.
They make interesting bathing companions – not least because they suffer from flatulence more than most other animals. It’s not their fault – they have to eat huge quantities of vegetation to survive and the innocent by-product is copious amounts of methane gas.
Manatees make up for their flatulence by being among the friendliest animals on earth. They enjoy bodily contact – I can’t remember the number of times I’ve been given a big manatee hug. One animal held me with his flippers, as if we were about to launch into an underwater foxtrot. I couldn’t help squealing with shock through my snorkel and he promptly let go and swam off to find a more willing dance partner.
The great thing about Crystal River is that if the manatees fancy a break they can swim under a rope into a special refuge where their human admirers are not allowed. And there are volunteer wardens and rangers from the US Fish & Wildlife Service (www.fws.gov) to keep an official eye on things.
As one ranger commented, there’s little difference between swimming with manatees and sitting in an eagle’s nest, so the encounter sites do need to be carefully controlled.
But when the manatees choose to mingle there’s nothing else quite like it. All you need for a close encounter is an ability to snorkel and a penchant for big, friendly animals that love to dance.
Zoologist Mark Carwardine is the author of more than 40 books, presenter of Nature on BBC Radio 4, and spends much of his time travelling the world in search of wildlife and wild places (www.markcarwardine.com)
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