Post #39, SWIMMING WITH MANATEES IN THE WILD, Day 203, November 23, 2014. On board: Paul, Jim K.
Did you know that the closest living relative to a manatee is the elephant? The two species share a number of similar and unique physical and biological functions which indicate that the two species are related, evolving quite differently from the same ancient ancestor.
Manatees are mammals, which means they breathe air and give live birth to their young (as opposed to eggs or larvae or some other multi-phase process). A baby manatee (calf) weighs about 60 pounds when born after a year-long gestation period in it’s mother’s womb. Adult manatees live up to 60 years, measuring up to 13 feet long and weighing up to 1300 pounds! They generally swim about 3-5 mph, but can accelerate up to 20 mph for short bursts – don’t get in the way of a 1300 pound manatee traveling at 20 mph! They spend approximately 50% of their time sleeping submerged, surfacing for a breath of air every 20 minutes or so. They spend most of the rest of their time grazing on underwater plants in shallow water, in which they will usually eat 10-15% of their body weight EACH DAY, which translates to about 7 hours per day eating. That’s a lot of salad! They also perform their one other goal in life – mating. Eat, sleep, mate – it sounds like quite a good life – until you realize that they only mate about once every two years.
Manatees are generally solitary animals, and are also quite intelligent – similar to dolphins, they possess long term memory (like an elephant) and are capable of complex learning. They communicate via a wide range of sounds, mostly between mother and calf or during play or during the mating ritual (I can only imagine what they might be saying after waiting for two years to mate (“Remind me again – what do we do next” or “Let’s try to make this LAST”).
Manatees are listed as an Endangered Species – their primary threat is collisions with powerboats or ships, and loss of habitat. All boaters in Florida are familiar with “idle speed only” manatee zones, designed to minimize collisions with manatees in areas where there they are known to hang out.
So much to our surprise, we learned that Crystal River is reportedly the only place in the world – certainly it is the only place in the U.S. – where it is legal to swim with manatees in the wild! The town of Crystal River is located 8 miles up the river itself, which originates from a cluster of 50 natural springs that feed King’s Bay at the head of the river. Because it is spring-fed, King’s Bay, resembling a small lake at the terminus of the river, maintains a constant temperature of 72 degrees year round. Manatees do not like cold water – they therefore seek areas of relatively warm water to hang out in the wintertime. Thus, King’s Bay and Crystal River are home to over 400 manatees during the winter. So, of course, since we’re in Crystal River, we had to experience swimming with the manatees firsthand. Here are some images:
There are very strict rules regarding behavior while swimming with the manatees – the swimmer is to be a passive observer unless the manatee initiates interaction, in which case touching the manatee is allowed. As it was explained to me, some manatees have no interest in interacting, similar to how some cats tend to shy away from close interaction with people. Other manatees are curious and will, at times, initiate and seem to enjoy interaction. I was fortunate in that a large manatee swam up to me while I was hovering, and she clearly wanted to interact:
By the way, I keep referring to these behemoths as “she” – I have no idea whether any of them (except the mother with the baby) is a he or she. However, I wasn’t about to try to put myself in a position to find out…
If you want to swim with the manatees, Crystal River is only about a 1 1/2 hour drive from Tampa/St. Pete. You can do so year-round, although I imagine it is much better in the winter since the manatees come up the river at that time to escape the colder water of the Gulf. Call Jeff or Joanne at Double J Adventures, 352 445 2483.
So Crystal River was our first stop after we left Suwannee, and our last stop along the Big Bend. We left Suwannee at first light last Sunday about 2 hours before high tide, with a goal of reaching the mouth of Crystal River a couple of hours before low tide there, since there had been shoaling reported in the channel and in the 8 mile run up the river. Conversations with the local Boat US/Tow Boat operator provided some additional “local knowledge”, and we had no difficulties. The town of Crystal River is notably larger than our previous stops on the Big Bend, with a population of about 3,000 (still a small town). It’s economy is focused on tourism, supported by the manatees and by water sports and boating centered on King’s Bay. There is some fishing, but it does not dominate the culture as it did in the other Big Bend towns of St. Marks, Steinhatchee, or Suwannee. Here are some images:
As we have moved through various parts of the country, it’s fascinating to see the different attitudes regarding alcohol. In some areas, there is tight regulatory control over the sale and use of alcohol (such as in Massachusetts). In other areas, you can walk into a gas station and buy a can of beer from a tub of ice next to the cash register when you pay for your gas. In many parts of the south however, particularly in Alabama and Mississippi, you cannot buy alcohol at all – many towns and/or counties are completely dry. But I had a unique experience in Crystal River, now that I’m in Florida – I went into a large liquor store and asked the clerk where I could find a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream. “Have you ever had Michael’s Irish Cream – it’s better and $2 cheaper”, he said. “No, I think I’ll stick with the Baileys”, I replied. “It really is better – would you like to try a sample?” he asked. “What?” “Would you like a sample?” “Uhh – sure”. So he took a bottle of Michael’s Irish Cream off the shelf, opened it, poured some in a glass and handed it to me to drink. He then poured samples and handed them to several other customers in the store who happened to walk by. I knew I was surely in Florida. I bought the Michael’s.
So we stayed an extra two days in Crystal River due to windy weather (not to mention cold – it was 27 degrees in the morning!). We therefore rented a car and drove to Yankeetown then Cedar Key, the only two Big Bend stops that we had bypassed. Yankeetown proved to be no more than a wide spot in the road a few miles from the river, and the marina where we would have stayed was remote and in very poor condition:
We then drove to Cedar Key (accessible by bridge), which proved to be a fun, funky, artsy island community with shops, restaurants, pubs, and interesting old buildings. We had lunch and, of course, ice cream as we walked around and took in the sights of the town. Here are some images:
The forecast was finally for lighter winds Thursday morning – however, the tide schedule was challenging. Low tide occurs 2 1/2 hours LATER at the upper end of the Crystal River than it does at the mouth, 8 miles downriver. There is a shoal a short ways from the end of the river where we were docked, and another one at Shell Island, at the mouth of the river. We therefore left at first light to get past the first shoal before the tide got too low, but then had to dawdle for a couple of hours to wait for the tide to fill in at Shell Island at the mouth of the river. On top of that, when we cast off at first light, the temperature was 29 degrees and there was ICE on the decks – we had to hold onto the railings to keep from falling on the ice as we collected the docklines and cast off. I thought we were in Florida! The net result was a long, 11 hour day, for we had a 60 mile run to Tarpon Springs after we finally cleared the channel – we left at first light and pulled into the dock at Tarpon Springs at sunset.
Tarpon Springs marks the official end of Florida’s “Big Bend”, and marks the resumption of the protected waters of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. You may recall from previous posts that southbound trawler-type boats have a choice of crossing the Big Bend via a 20-hour overnight passage of about 175 miles or taking the “hopscotch” route and stopping at various harbors along the way, as we did, which adds about 100 miles to the trip. The overnight trip requires a 2-day weather window of light winds and favorable weather. A flotilla of boats left Carabelle on the same day that we left on the “hopscotch route” two weeks ago, and had a pleasant passage. Unfortunately for those boats that arrived at the start of the Big Bend a day or two later, the favorable weather window slammed shut – there are now about 25 boats that have been waiting for another weather window for two weeks now, and are expected to have to wait at least until the coming weekend before they can cross, and will spend Thanksgiving wherever they are. Welcome to boating!
Tarpon Springs is a sizable tourist town with two dominant themes, which are related to each other. First, it has the highest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the United States. As a result, it is known for it’s many Greek restaurants which are reputed to be some of the best Greek restaurants in the nation. Second, it is known for the harvesting of sponges, in which early Greek immigrants played a critical role.
Tarpon Springs was first settles in 1876 by both white and black fishermen and farmers. They named the new settlement “Tarpon Springs” when they observed many tarpon jumping out of the water. In the 1880’s, the harvesting of sponges began and grew – sponges grew naturally in the shallow waters of the Gulf adjacent to the settlement. The harvesting of sponges was a significant industry in Greece at the time, so a number of Greek immigrants were attracted to Tarpon Springs to work in the sponge industry. In 1905, a Greek entrepreneur introduced sponge diving as a more efficient method of harvesting sponges, and he recruited divers and their crews from Greece to come to Tarpon Springs to harvest sponges. As a result, the Greek population increased dramatically. Thus, the two dominant themes in the city today – Greek culture and sponges – stem from the origins of Tarpon Springs and the relationship between those two forces that was forged over 100 years ago.
Here are some images from our stay in Tarpon Springs:
Our next stop was Clearwater Beach, about 15 miles south of Tarpon Springs. Talk about culture change from our experiences along the Big Bend over the past week and a half! Clearwater Beach is a sprawling, new, modern, resort area with high rise condominiums, street performers, restaurant chains, and resort-type activities. The wide beach is truly spectacular with fine, white sand. Here are some images:
The section of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg for the most part runs directly behind the barrier islands with the Gulf beaches just on the other side of the islands. Here are some images:
On Saturday, our run of about 40 miles from Clearwater Beach to Saint Petersburg was marked by cloudy weather but no rain, and 15 knot winds with gusts to 20. Though not a problem on the protected areas of the Intracoastal Waterway, we were confronted with 3′-5′ waves once we entered the wide and open waters of Tampa Bay. We picked our way slowly up the bay to St. Pete, carefully managing the angle of the boat to the waves (catamarans don’t like waves on the beam). However, we reached the marina in downtown St. Pete without incident, where we are leaving the Joint Adventure for a week over the Thanksgiving holiday. As I write this on Sunday morning, I’m preparing to leave for the airport and a flight home.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!