Thursday, January 2, 2014

"Fairy-tails" - views from the eyes of a mermaid

From the eyes of the mermaids, everything is blue. Surrounded by a cool silence, they swim in a relaxing piece of watery paradise, and from below, it appears as if they are swimming in an ethereal azure sky. You may think that mermaids are only real in fairytales, but fortunately life can sometimes be a "fairytail" too.
Mermaids aren't real? After you dive in to this story, you may have to think again...
In the chilly off-season when all of the springs-goers and river tubers have retired to their warm homes and indoor pools on the weekends, other creatures appear in the springs. The secret is that the spring water, emerging from the Floridan aquifer below,  remains a constant ~70 degrees F year round - perfect for mermaiding in all seasons. It is during these quiet times of year that you are most likely to spot a mermaid gracefully gliding just  below the surface.

At this point, you may be skeptical having never seen a mermaid with your own eyes. You may not trust these pictures either, but please wait before you make your final judgement! My childhood dreams (and perhaps that of every little girl who has ever seen The Little Mermaid) came true once on June 18, 2012 when I was transformed into a mermaid for a day while helping at a video shoot held at Rainbow Springs for Eric Ducharme and his mermaids. That night, I wrote "A Mermaid's Tail", which includes "How to become a mermaid (in 10 easy steps!)" and decided that my life would never be the same. And it certainly has not. Call me crazy, but since that day, I have dreamed of having my own tail. Yes, my friend Danielle and I swim in the springs, taking pictures and dolphin kicking around in our long flippers practically every weekend and call this "mermaiding," but for the full effect, tails are necessary. And on October 11, 2013, my dreams came true for the second time, thanks to my very own amazing prince. 
Greg and I at Gilchrist Blue Spring :)
Greg set up a surprise treasure hunt that took me all over the entire Ginnie Springs property on my birthday - and at the end, there was a gift certificate to get my own personalized tail from The Mertailor Eric Ducharme! I sent in a crazy number of measurements (ankle, thigh, calf, and knee circumference, waist, hips, shoe size, etc.), and by mid-November, I received my tail in the mail. Greg, you are truly too amazing.  
My tail arrived mid-week and I anxiously (barely) made it through the rest of the week of school (yes, mermaids have day jobs and for this one, it's being a PhD student - thankfully my field work is in the springs… sans tail, but I'll take it). On Friday, November 22, 2013, while New England was amidst a chilly winter and it crossed nobody else's mind to head to Gilchrist Blue Springs, Greg and I did just that. 

Slipping into my tail on the dock, I lost my legs and became useless on land; I was left with no choice but to slide into the water. With a big breath, a little leap of faith, and a few flicks of my tail, I was off into another watery world.
As I slipped into the water, Greg wasn't far behind with the GoPro. A huge thank you to him for being not only the best boyfriend in the world but also for capturing this beautiful day using the GoPro!
 So what is it like to swim in the tail? For me personally, it's an escape - no matter what is stressing me out or going on above water, swimming in general (and more specifically in my tail!) is a perfect break, just like yoga, exercise, or playing an instrument for others. I'm not the most graceful person above water, but the tail allows me to glide along with the fishes and turtles with effortless elegance as I'm surrounded by my favorite ecosystems in the world - the springs.

Besides being an escape, swimming in the tail is actually a great workout. Usually, I don't last long swimming around in no wetsuit, so when I jump in the water to take photos or go cave diving, I can always be found in a full wetsuit, hood, booties, and sometimes even gloves. Besides the fact that mermaids can't wear wetsuits (and especially not drysuits) or masks, you actually stay fairly warm because of the way you have to swim in the tail. The swimming motion is similar to doing the butterfly stroke or doing "the worm" - it's an undulating motion like a sine curve, similar to how a whale, dolphin or manatee swims. And it definitely works your abs! So, as crazy as it sounds, mermaiding is in fact a workout, not to mention you're holding your breath the whole time. Now open your eyes underwater, don't use your arms to propel yourself forward, and smile for the camera, perhaps blow underwater kisses or some o-ring bubbles and move with finesse - now you're starting to master the art of mermaiding! It's a work in progress, but it's certainly something that's fun to work at while I'm not in class or doing research - any time spent underwater is time well spent.

So next time you're out at the springs and you catch a glimpse of a flash of blue, don't mistake it for a shark, a dolphin, or a figment of your imagination, because mermaids do not only exist at the legendary Weeki Wachee and in fairytales - they are in fact very real and may be swimming in your drinking water - they are perhaps much closer than you think.

><((((°>     ><((((°>     ><((((°>

Wait… where did the mermaid go?! Above water, I guess they disappear ;)
Special thanks to "Again and Again" handmade bags (made from recycled sails!) of Gloucester, MA for my fantastic mermaid bag!! You can check out their website to see all of their unique products made of sails using this link.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Manatee Morning

As the minutes passed and turned into hours, I stared wide-eyed at the ceiling. It was one of those end-of-the-semester nights when your mind rushes and and, no matter what you try, it is impossible to will yourself to sleep. The feeling was brought on by a mix of stress and excitement, and it was certainly the closest I've felt to a little kid on Christmas Eve in a very long time - but for very exciting reasons!

I had impatiently waited all day, jumping at any and every noise that sounded anything remotely like a UPS truck. I must have sprung up from my chair at least a dozen times to press my face to the window - both taking a brief study break from an endless term paper and to see if there were any brown trucks in the driveway. Finally, at 8 p.m., I got word that a package had just been delivered to the front office, which prompted me to sprint over in my pajamas and run back to my apartment with a 15 + pound box containing my new camera and housing!!! Christmas came a week early this year :)
It's time to bring the SLR underwater!! A huge upgrade from my little SeaLife, but that camera and I have been on so many adventures!
I spent the next few hours unpacking each individually-wrapped piece and carefully assembling and testing the housing for leaks. By the time I was finished, it was almost 11 p.m… getting closer and closer to the 4 a.m. manatee wake up call. Long story short, I managed to get about 1 hour of sleep between 2:30 and 3:30ish, and by the time 3:45 a.m. came around, I was in some sort of adrenaline-induced haze. Half sleep-walking and half dreaming, we bundled up and drove to meet Danielle and Mark in a pitch dark Publix parking lot, drove 1.5 hours to Crystal River, and jumped on the 6:00 a.m. pontoon boat leaving the dock from Bird's Underwater.
Some things make sacrificing a little bit of sleep 100% worth it. A beautiful sunrise over Crystal River on our way to 3 Sisters Springs.  
After watching a spectacular sunrise over the river, Greg, Danielle, Mark S., Mark L., Annette, and I arrived at 3 Sisters Springs to find dozens of manatees keeping warm in and around the sanctuary. Losing no time and taking advantage of being one of the first two boats to arrive, we all suited up and hopped in the water, cameras in hand.
Chilly 40-something degree air temperatures left a haze on the 70 degree spring water when we first jumped in. 
The minute you submerge your face into the steaming water and the suspended sand clears from view, you are immediately transported back in time. Before your eyes, prehistoric creatures, ancient relatives of elephants, emerge, floating effortlessly throughout the spring. And they are much bigger than they appear in pictures. Some were resting on the bottom alone, others joined to make a big pig pile of sleeping manatees, with one or two slowly rising to the surface at any given time to take in a long, relaxing breath, and then settle back down to continue their nap. It's kind of like that whack-a-mole game - but 100 times the size… and underwater. 
Pile 'o manatee.
Others walk along the bottom using their pectoral fins, making them look like confused hybrid land/sea creatures (and if you look closely, you can see the vestiges of toenails reminiscent of elephant feet!): 
Walking along the bottom - and looking very curious!
Others are more curious and often swim right up to the camera… maybe being friendly or perhaps just checking themselves out in the big dome port that acts as a mirror:
It's as if he is posing for the camera! He swam up within inches of my lens.
Even without a camera, they are extremely affable and curious creatures… especially this baby manatee! He interacted with us for almost the entire 2 hours we spent in the water - even when we would purposefully swim away to give him space, he would come back and play.
They are absolutely amazing animals and are so much fun to interact with in the water, although by the end of our ~2 hour swim, boatloads of people started showing up and I definitely started feeling the effects of humans "loving them to death" (aka too many people crowding or spooking the manatees), which can be seen in this short National Geographic time lapse video called Manatee Madness. Swimming with these majestic, ancient mammals is a special experience that I hope many people are fortunate enough to experience, but as with all human interactions with wildlife, it does require us to be respectful and cognizant that they are wild animals. Crystal River is perhaps the only place in the world where you are allowed to touch the manatees (with one hand, if they approach you) and it is truly a wonderful and memorable experience... I hope that we are able to interact with them in a way that does not disrupt them so we may continue to have the privilege of swimming with them for many years to come!
How could you not love that face?! 
Greg and I smiling through our snorkels - so happy to be swimming with the manatees… can't wait to go back!
The rest of my photos are in my Gentle Giants Facebook album.