My affection for manatees started as a joke.
In landlocked Franklin County, Ga. I had a reporter who somehow managed to work a manatee press release into our newspaper and I didn’t see the page until it was printed.
I went on a rant about the ridiculousness of it since most of the people in our county most likely didn’t even know what a manatee was, let alone ever see or encounter one.
I didn’t know much about them either except they were endangered and often harmed by boats. That truly was the extent of it.
A year later I took a job in Levy County and found to my amazement this is where manatees winter.
When I transferred my car, I bought the specialty tag. And I set out to learn everything I could about them.
My friend, Annette Long–one of the most liberal environmentalists I know (and love) was happy to educate me about manatees, and springs in general.
When my best friend, Denise visited with her daughters, I shared my knowledge, we all bought manatee charms and started calling ourselves the Manatee Mafia.
Nine year later I still purchase the manatee tag and I attempt to educate everyone in my small circle about the gentle giants.
When I got my swimming with the manatees birthday present, I was thrilled. It was such an awesome opportunity that I really couldn’t believe it was happening.
And when I wrote about the experience two weeks ago it was to share one of the most beautiful experiences of my Florida life.
And then the letter to the editor came.
The writer said my experience was not one of love but of negligence.
She also went on to quote policies about being near manatees, including not touching them–which I obviously did during my swim.
I was sick to my stomach. Had I done something wrong? Did I violate a law?
I reached out first to the dive center where I did the tour, then Annette and the Save The Manatee Club.
Annette was quick to respond and knew I would quote her on anything she said.
“The reason that Crystal River is different is because there are springs everywhere,” Annette said. “If you swam with the manatees at Fanning or Manatee Spring, it might chase them out into the cold river water. The springs in many places are miles apart. At Crystal River the animals move from one spring to another much of the time. There were five spring and numerous warm water vents surrounding Three Sisters upstream and downstream. King's Bay is another huge spring there as are many others that are yards to a little over a mile away from Three Sisters.
The bottom line (and you can quote me on anything I've said) is that we will never be able to save gentle, non-food wild animals like manatees if there isn't some economic advantage to the community. It's my belief that Crystal River is significantly safer for manatees due to the tourism they create. Thanks to the dollars spent by tourists, the community and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have much more stringent boating rules and many more manatee sanctuaries than anywhere else in the south. The tour leaders know that if the rules are violated they will lose their ability to run tours there.”
I felt some better but this was Annette’s opinion. I wanted to hear from an authority. And that’s where Patrick Rose came in.
Rose is Save the Manatee Club’s (SMC) Executive Director. Pat has over 40 years’ experience working with manatees and is an Aquatic Biologist and Certified Public Manager. He is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on the Florida manatee.
He called me last week and after an hour-long conversation, my fears were allayed.
Swimming and interacting with manatees is illegal, he said, except in Crystal River.
Because interaction there is monitored and there is such a plethora of the creatures in winter, the swims are part of the educational process about the plight of the manatee.
Rose was the person who developed the rules about swimming with the manatees: one handed open touch, not feeding them, not separating calves from their mothers, not swimming over them, not approaching them but allowing them to approach you.
In fact, Rose said many of the juvenile manatees want human interaction and some demand it–like the one that kept tackling my husband that morning. It’s playfulness.
“The way we protect this privilege is to sustain a balance,” Rose said.
Guided, monitored tours such as the one I was on is a part of the educational process and it helps find that balance.
There are currently about 600 manatees in Florida, he said and more sanctuaries are needed.
Some manatees, he said, need a place to rest and be away from human touch.
“Saving the manatees has been my life’s work,” Rose said. “And if there comes a time when we stop the touch all together, that’s OK.
“But what I really want is when you come back from a swim in the springs is not for a friend to ask if you touched a manatee, but ask you instead, ‘Did a manatee touch you?’”
After we exchanged cell phone numbers and promised to stay in touch, I felt so much better.
I swam with the manatees in an appropriate manner and followed all the rules.
If we truly expect to preserve this creature then we have to be open to ideas, share what we know and continue to support the policies in place while educating others.
So, is it OK to touch a manatee? Yes and no.
You’re better off if he pets you. And it’s really something more exciting to talk about.