Weird is Relative: The Case of the Manatee
The world is filled with strange and unusual things. Although, if you live seeing something your entire life, it can seem perfectly normal.
For example, here in Florida, manatees are a normal sight…especially in the cold months, when they come into the springs to get relief from the chill waters of the sea. If you lived here your entire life, you would think manatees are normal. If you were from anywhere else, you would think they were quite weird.
A manatee is basically an aquatic cow. Their nickname is Sea Cows! Their closest relative is the elephant. They have similar toes and they can move their lips independently in the same way an elephant uses its trunk. Manatees can weigh up to 3,500 pounds and reach up to 13 feet long. On average, though, they are 10 feet long, weighing about 800-1200 pounds.
Talk about a literal "gentle giant"!
I recently had a fascinating manatee experience. I had seen manatees my entire life, but I had never really gotten very close to them. That changed on this camping trip to north Florida's natural springs. The springs are natural fountains that emit water from underground reservoirs sourcing deep inside the earth. I went with my family and our friend Tommaso, who was visiting from Italy.
During the trip, we camped in the woods, in a cabin. One of my favorite things about camping is the campfire s'mores. I love the slightly burnt and sweet taste of the hot marshmallows. What I don't like is the thick, musky smell of the smoke when it blows in my face.
The first part of the trip was swimming in springs, they can be found throughout most of Florida, but are most frequent in northern Florida. We swam in the constant 72 degree fahrenheit, crystal-clear water. It would have been a lot more refreshing in the summer, but this was in January. I know it's Florida (where people think it is always warm), but the air temperature was in the low 60's…making it especially cold when I got out of the water. This was the first time I had ever tried snorkeling, and I could see fish and turtles everywhere. I even caught a couple of turtles and held them for a minute. The shells felt hard and slimy because of the algae growing on them.
I let him go as soon as I got a good look at him.
Being under the water was like being in another world. The underwater world is so different, it seems as if there is no gravity. Everything moves around freely, instead of depending on gravity, like we do. I find it strange how the fish are able to easily move so fluidly through the water, while we constantly struggle, out of our element.
One day, we rented some canoes and went down the Suwannee River. It started out as just your average canoeing trip. However, on the way back, there was a manatee swimming directly beneath our boats and all around us. It was huge! We slowly pulled our paddles out of the water to not startle the manatee. It was incredibly quiet; all we could hear was the wind blowing through the trees. The water was still and the manatee was moving slowly about us. I was amazed by the size of this aquatic creature - I had never realized they were so big until I got this close to one. It was remarkably gentle and peaceful, focusing on nothing other than eating. It was as if it didn't even notice us. Manatees have gone virtually unchanged for 45-50 million years, give or take a few years. Considering they have been around that long, I often wonder what the purpose is for having kept their large size through evolution.
This is the manatee swimming around our boat
Heading home from our trip, we couldn’t get enough of the manatees. So, we decided to stop in Crystal River, a place known for having many manatees. We rented kayaks and went out on the river. After kayaking down the river for a while and seeing a couple manatees up close, we stopped at the entrance to the springs where the manatees like to be. This is when we got out of our kayak and into the water to swim with the manatees.
This was before getting in the water in Crystal River
The second I touched the water, I was practically freezing. The only reason I could stay in was because of my wetsuit. As soon as I got in the water, I saw at least 50 manatees! I was shocked by how many there were. I stayed in for a while and nearly touched one, it was so close to me. I would have touched it, but there are many rules there. You are not allowed to touch it unless it comes to you. This one was about 12 inches below me. You also can not chase them or follow them. I just kept floating towards it to be as close as I could without disturbing it. I was amazed by the sheer size of it. I couldn't believe I was so close - it was as if I were actually swimming with a cow! When I asked Tommaso how he felt by this strange experience, he said he was surprised, and noted,
“They don't look like mean creatures, so you never feel fear from them. They are so smooth and slow with their big and strange noses. There is nothing visually threatening about them. They are so tender. You feel no fear; they just give you peace, a relaxing feeling. They just make you want to be with them.”
This is me swimming with a manatee, I am on the left, that is Tommaso on the right.
Swimming with a manatee brings me to why weird is relative. I personally don't find manatees to be very strange, but my friend visiting from Italy didn't know what to think of them! I thought they were relatively normal, but I could see how someone else may think they were the strangest thing they had ever seen. It really is unique that something this big can be so peaceful.
Rhythm Turner is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program
All photos courtesy and copyright Rhythm Turner