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.

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