Swimming with Manatees: Experiencing one of nature's most fragile giants

Matt visits Homosassa Springs, Florida where an expert river guide takes him to swim with one of nature's gentlest, largest, and most endangered species. Photo: Matt Payne

LOS ANGELES, February 29, 2012 – It is just before 6 in the morning when I exit my room at the Homosassa River Resort just off of the shore of the Homosassa River in Citrus County Florida. 

Egret holding court over the morning water.

The merging of the words “Citrus” and “Florida” conjure up images of retired men in Bermuda shorts, bronze bodies in powdery sand, and freshly garnished cocktails so I am taken back when greeted by a stern breeze and the chill of a crisp forty-four degrees. 

Despite the cold, by the time the sun nudges out the brittle night, I, along with this spring-fed river’s thousand pound and dangerously endangered residents known to locals as the sea cow and to the world as the West Indian Manatee, will be swimming.

Manatees are slow moving mammals that breach the water to breath.  Because of their size and proximity to the water’s surface, boating collisions are common and have been a great cause of their diminished numbers.  The loss of land has also played a roll in this animal’s potential demise but over the years, thanks to strong efforts by the Fish and Wildlife Department and public awareness, numbers are once again on the incline. 

These massive creatures are migratory animals that can survive not only in the freshwater rivers of Florida but can also found in both the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Atlantic Ocean.  Their northernmost range is typically as far up as the Carolinas, but these grass-loving sea cows have been spotted as far north as Cape Cod. 

Despite their massive girth, a manatee’s body cannot survive in waters colder than 68 degrees, which is why in the winter they are found primarily near the many fresh water springs of northern Florida where the water stays a constant 72 degrees.  Currently, there are just under five thousand manatees left.

While to the average ear, 72-degree water is far from balmy, that water in contrast to the frigid air is a welcome relief. 

Manatees are most abundant in the early hours before the local boats and other tour groups become active.  Manatees are only seen in the winter months and head to the oceans when the temperatures climb.

Morning sunlight blasting through the river’s morning steam highlights snowy egrets roosting in overhanging trees.  A group of dolphins cackle and play, carving their way up the fresh river water at breakneck speed. 

Eagerly, I slide into a wetsuit on a boat operated by River Ventures Tours.  River Ventures operates primarily out of Crystal River, the more populated and well-known manatee-filled river ten miles north of Homosassa. 

River Ventures works in partnership with The Homosassa River Resort.  While the Homosassa typically boasts fewer manatees and is located in a sleepier town, it easier to engage with the peaceful sea cows here. 

Mike, one of River Venture’s six certified captains, is at the helm of the forty-person vessel.  On this particular morning the boat is about half full. 

The crowd includes families looking for an adventure, wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists.

Because manatees are endangered, the rules are quite strict.  You can only engage with the animals if they first engage with you.  To reach for the animal on your own or disturb it in any way is both a state and federal crime.

Mike assures us that despite their size manatees are gentle, curious creatures.  When they sense something in the water, to understand it, they gingerly approach, brush by, and often times will engage for prolonged periods of time. 

Manatees primarily gather in an inaccessible protected sanctuary, but upon hearing movement in the water, they typically come to explore.

Once caught up and suited up, we put on our snorkels.  As I wait for my turn, I hear the hiss of a manatee taking a breath.  It is hard to judge it’s size from high up on the stern of the boat, but it is no doubt large. 

Mike hands me a water noodle to use as a floatation device and I make the subtle plunge into the water, which feels warm compared to the outside air.  The current is thankfully non-threatening.

The group spreads out quietly and I  make my way along the edge of the sanctuary where, before long, I hear Mike firmly but softly say the magic words: “Manatee to the left!”

I look to the left and see nothing.  Then I spin around.  Still nothing.  I turn forward to swim on and am face to face with the massive beast.  Its size, slow movement and proximity catch me off guard.  No matter how many pictures you might see, to encounter such a creature in an otherwise stark environment is arresting. 

It juts past me and takes off with the kick of his paddle-shaped tail.

In the distance, I hear Mike say, “There’s a baby!”  Manatees are devout parents and the mother carries the baby for a thirteen-month gestation period before even giving birth.  

I look back down and only see the manatee that had just passed me.  Once again, I look the other direction and quickly and startlingly realize that the whiskered giant that had just brazed my arm was the baby.  Suddenly before me, is something nearly three times what I had just seen. It feels like it takes up the entire river. The manatee’s nearest relative is the elephant, I believe it.  While I have been assured that these animals are herbivores and the only person ever injured by one was because he tried to ride it, I can’t help but feel a surge of panic. 

My instinct is to swim away but we’ve been told to keep still.   I note the scars on it’s mossy back.  This mom has had a run-in or two with unaware boaters but she is elegant none-the-less.  Her baby is attached to its right flipper.  It is impossible to conceive that feasibly in a few years this stunning mother/child pair will have met the fate of the dinosaurs and the dodo.  

Somewhere down river a little boy screams and splashes.  He’s seen one.  And with his splashing, my new mossy friends slowly sail away into the deep blue of the shallow river. 

I’m annoyed.   I want to tell him to shut it.  There were simple rules about staying quiet. 

I wanted to tell him that his enthusiasm cost me a magical moment with something that might soon fade into mere myth, but I am freezing and there is a snorkel in my mouth.

He proceeds to tell his mother that he wants to see that manatee again.  She tells him to be patient, and so he is.  And with his patience comes the awareness to another generation that such an animal exists and the hope that maybe with enough kids like him seeing it, while it may have cost me a moment, it might keep these gentle beasts around another generation.  

While I wish his enthusiasm had been contained, it is enthusiasm none-the-less and to a dying breed, that is a good thing. 

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Matt Payne

Matt Payne has lived and worked as both a television writer and producer in Los Angeles for nearly ten years.  Matt grew up in Oklahoma City and began his career with a degree in Film and Video Studies from the University of Oklahoma.  Since then, he has worked as part of writing staffs for such hits as 24 andWithout A Trace. Most recently Matt wrote and produced episodes of CBS’s The Defenders starring Jim Belushi and Jerry O’Connell and Memphis Beat, starring Jason Lee, which is set to air on TNT in August of 2011.

In addition to a successful television-writing career, Matt has developed features with major production companies and continues to work as a freelance script analyst for Relativity Media, the production company behind such hits as The Fighter, Zombieland, and Catfish where he has provided script feed back on nearly a thousand features.

When he is not writing and producing television, Matt works as contributor to the Washington Times Communities Travel section, where he has writing skills have taken him from the top of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpar to the jungles of the Philippine Islands.  New York City’s finest restaurants to the earthquake ravaged Port au Prince Haiti. 

Matt was the winner of the 2004 Comedy writing award for Scriptapolooza, a finalist for the Warner Brothers Television Writer’s workshop, and is an active participant in Los Angeles’s Young Storytellers Program.  

Early in his career, Matt spent two years working as an assistant the Endeavor, which is now part of WME, the second largest talent agency in the world, working closely with such talent as Christian Bale and Michael Douglass.

Matt  is a member of  the Writer’s Guild of America and the Screen Actor’s Guild.

Contact Matt Payne


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