Manatee Diaries

Many times in life, we take things for granted. Family, good friends, good times…..it can be easy to forget how blessed we are. For those of us who work with manatees every day, we often fall into a pattern where we forget how lucky we are to have the jobs that we do. Some times it takes a step back to give us a little reminder of exactly how cool our lives are. We swim with manatees for God’s sake ….even though I grew up wanting to be a Rock Star, I have to admit,  it doesn’t get much more awesome than this!

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Days slip into weeks, and weeks slip into months. Life has a way of keeping our minds preoccupied with minutia and creating a disconnect between mother earth and our existence. Sometimes we must put down our phones, plant our feet in the earth and raise our faces to the shining sun. We are meant to be out here; we become our true selves in the presence of the natural world without the noise that typically surrounds us. After a few stressful months of being surrounded by 4 walls and a roof, I decide that it’s time for me to get back to what’s real…time to get back to nature!

So early on a chilly morning last week, I packed up my 15 year old son, grabbed a few of my favorite friends and set out on the Bay in search of solace and the elusive gentle giants that I love so much! It didn’t take long for the fresh air to permeate my grumpiness and the gentle breeze from the Gulf to ease away my stress. Perspective changes so quickly when we simply GET OUT SIDE! Within minutes we were anchored at one of our favorite spots, and quietly lowering ourselves into the water near at least a dozen manatees.

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As autumn descends upon us, with the crisp air and cool winds, the manatees head up the Crystal River and into the King’s Bay Wildlife Refuge…. this is their winter time home. Many of us know that the first few cold spells are often tough to bear for Floridians, but we can be rewarded with curious and friendly animals that have missed their human cohorts! This is hard to deny, as multiple animals swim in my direction, clearly checking me out, trying to make eye contact and reaching toward my hands for a simple human touch. Is it possible that touch is valuable to other species in the same way it is to humans?? They say it helps to alleviate stress, stimulates happy brain chemicals and regular human touch can even help fight disease by raising our immunities. Is this true for other species as well? Do they long for a friendly encounter, or desire a supportive embrace? If this were not the case, then why this behavior?? Manatees are unique beings, but the longing to be touched after extended periods of travel and stress is not. In many ways, manatees are just like us! I believe they get lonely too.

These are the moments that I am reminded why I do what I do. This encounter with a sweet, enormous female wakes up my spirit and touches me deeply. I have the joy daily, the privilege, of introducing unsuspecting humans to the majestic beauty of the manatee. Not everyone reacts the way that I do…..but I know that hundreds, maybe even thousands of people are changed yearly due to contact with my manatee friends!

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We are spread out in the water at this point so I lift my head up to find my son, and gently swim over to his side.  As we passively observe a half dozen giants within 15 feet or so of us, a mother with a very active baby swims straight in my direction. The mom and baby stop about 4 feet in front of my son and I. They look mesmerized. They are looking straight at us.  I reach over and gently grab my son’s hand. This young man loves me, I know…but he will no longer hold my hand in public. At this moment though, he welcomes the touch of my hand and doesn’t automatically shake me off in the irritated way he usually does! I enjoy this fleeting feeling of comfort with my one true love by my side, I look over to my son, who looks back at me and gives me the excited approval of a thumbs up. For a tough fifteen year old, that thumbs up is worth a million words! Deep down, he’s a lot like his mother and he appreciates these moments of unspoken beauty. I grasp his hand tighter and he squeezes mine in return this time, as this manatee family hangs almost magically in the water before us.  Still observing us, but now in a relaxed and trusting way, the young male reaches out towards his mama and gently touches her head. It was like ‘Hey Mom, look at these weirdos’, almost like a tap on her shoulder. Then the baby, still affixed in our direction, reaches it’s fin towards his mother’s outreached fin. For a few seconds, they float right in front of us….fin in fin, as we are hand in hand.

I feel myself getting choked up. Yes, I’m in the water with a mask and snorkel, but I feel tears trickling down my cheeks to be caught by the seal of my mask. The weight of looking over at another proud mother, touching her son while I touch mine….gets the best of my sensitive side and I’m overcome with emotion. Could it be possible that these two wild animals recognize that a matching pair is looking back at them? Sounds like a crazy idea, but in that moment I am absolutely positive of this. Gratitude washes over me, as I smile at my son. In this instant, I feel like the luckiest person in the world.

I can have this experience, pretty much when ever I want. I live just a few blocks from the water in an old house that needs some TLC, but I decided that instead of a nice house, I wanted to be closer to the Bay. Sometimes we have to have our priorities!  My bathroom plumbing hasn’t drained in nearly a month, and my hardwood floors from 1952 are succumbing to dry rot. But that is for another day, those crippling thoughts don’t even cross my mind at this moment. All my worries fade away in the twinkle of a manatees eye, this is the closest Ive been to true joy in some time. Right now is not the time to worry about anything….what did the President say today? Will I ever have another date? Is the milk in the fridge still good? I won’t think of any of those things at this time. I will leave the water a better person, a more focused employee, a more loving mother…..today I am all awash with uncommon gratitude because today….. I swam with manatees.