Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
Trip End Jul 26, 2010

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Flag of United States  , Florida
Thursday, July 8, 2010

Today I had the privilege of swimming with the state mammal of Florida. Yes, Florida has a "state mammal": the manatee, a large, gray aquatic mammal with a body that tapers to a flat tail. They're sometimes called "sea cows" because they act pretty much like cows, grazing along the bottom of shallow seas and riverbeds for herbivorous matter that they ingest with their divided lips. Manatees are huge, averaging a length of ten feet and a weight of 1500 pounds. They're so big that when we spotted them in the Gulf today about twenty feet from where we were swimming, I was convinced that we must be looking at a large rock. Or a whale. But no, it was just two Florida manatees, doing what manatees do: which is to say, a whole lot of nothing. They surfaced every five minutes or so to breathe, which I'm now learning is typical of their behavior. But other than that, they just rested on the shallow ocean floor at a depth of about 4 to 5 feet. They slowly swam closer to us, then further away, then closer again. We and all the other people in the water watched mesmerized, waiting for the next surfacing when we might catch another glimpse of their snuffle-like mouths. They animals did not seem frightened of people at all, at one point coming within five feet of where a large group of us were standing. 

It's only our second beach day on this trip, and already we can say that we've "gone swimming" with manatees! The ease with which we stumbled across them--basically just walking out our front door and right into their swimming hole--disguises a sobering fact, which is that Florida manatees are actually critically endangered. That's because in addition to manatees and dolphins, Florida's waters are filled with a lot of boats. When a manatee encounters the mechanized propellers of one of these boats, it can be seriously injured, even killed. The scale of the problem is apparent from the fact that marine biologists now use the scars of propeller markings to identify individual animals in the wild.

No one doubts that Florida's manatees are in trouble, and that a huge part of the problem is boats. But what no one can seem to agree upon is just HOW much trouble they're in. Various conservation societies attempt to count the number of manatees in Florida's waters every year and, every year, their counts vary widely. Some say there are 2,500 manatees left in Florida's waters, while others estimate their remaining numbers as closer to 5,000. 

In only one county in Florida is it technically legal to "swim" with manatees--that is, to get in the water, up close and personal, with a manatee. That county is Citrus, and we're not in it. Citrus county has been harshly criticized for its "hands-on" policy, but after being in the water with manatees today, I've got to say: if you spend any length of time on Florida's Gulf Coast beaches, you'll be hard pressed NOT to swim with manatees. And luckily, that's OK by Chuck Underwood, public affairs officer of the Jacksonville U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who says that "If the animal initiates the action, and you remain passive, right now we still support that."

Good to know, Chuck, because now I believe I can post the following video without fear of Florida Law Enforcement coming after me for animal endangerment. It's not very spectacular (all you can see is the snout, and a big puff of air) but this video proves it: we swam with manatees!
(Hint: View slideshow to play the video.)
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