It is amusing how we humans tend to diminish the intensity of an animal’s true power in order to feel we are at one with them. Snuggly little stuffed bears, ball bouncing killer whales, and the basis for much of what is Disney attempt to break down the barriers between hand and claw. Aren’t they cute? But it is only as real as the choice between you, me, or them. It is survival, plain and simple. The only caveat being we seem to have the upper hand. It is up to us to decide what we want to live, and what we want to die.
For the time being, we have decided to allow enough room for 3,000 or so Florida manatees to navigate boat propellers, pollution, and encroachment to their habitat. Even when they do find a brief respite, they are assaulted by the very humans that have been generous enough to give them some room to breathe. Imagine snorkel-breathing animal enthusiasts hell-bent upon stroking the backs of innocent manatees no matter the cost. I tell you all of this only because of guilt. I recently became one of those humans who was directly responsible for infringing upon the manatees’ way of life.
On a recent sea kayaking trip out to Egmont Key, I realized through simple observation that quite a few manatees find their way up the waterways behind the island of Fort de Soto. I followed a few as they moved to deeper water with the outgoing tide, each of them displaying propeller scars on their backs as a right of passage. I tried to keep some distance, but they would often approach my sea kayak curious to see if I was something more. I tried to shoot video footage of these docile creatures, but they often surfaced and submerged before I could get anything worthwhile.
I decided to return the following weekend to see if I could capture any more video for the archives.
You Will Not Believe What Happened To Me
Almost immediately upon arriving to Fort de Soto the sky unleashed. The normally placid surface of the Gulf of Mexico turned angry and the palm trees braced against the wind. The rain beat down upon the hoods of countless cars making their way across the bridge to the dry, air conditioned safety of their Tampa Bay homes. I sat and waited. I was happy to see the earth wash itself clean of people even if for a little while.
Soon the sky cleared, and I slowly unpacked my gear and prepared for a paddle out into the Gulf. The sun beat down, and the water was slick and steamy. No one was around except for an apathetic raccoon snacking on mollusks alongside the river bank. All was quiet except for the occasional breach of air given off by distant manatees.
I saw several manatees surface a few yards away from me and then quickly disappear. I was floating quietly in the shallows when a baby appeared under the boat. I fumbled for the camera, but it was gone before I was ready. The water was murky from the rain, so I could not anticipate where they would surface next. I decided to take a less proactive approach and fished for a while in hopes they would we find me. After a while I grew tired of the attentive gnats and the disregarding fish. I decided to call it a day.
I was paddling back to my car when a rather large manatee surfaced to my left. Without thought I instantly reached my left paddle blade into the water and placed a hard brace to stop myself. I thought, maybe I could get some video footage after all? Instead, this motion immediately set off a chain of events that I am still amazed by. The manatee abruptly arced its entire body through the water kicking up a sizeable wake. It began to buck wildly, thrusting its tail out of the water as it moved quickly towards me.
Have you ever been in a situation where you curiously marveled in fear at the brute force of an animal? As the manatee’s tail came closer and closer to me I wondered if it would knock me unconscious. I did the only thing that I could do which was paddle. I began stroking like I was poised above the tallest waterfall, for that is exactly what it looked like. The water was frothed and white like a river rapid, and just as I began to pick up momentum my entire body and kayak were lifted from the water.
My sea kayak surprisingly came down right side up; although, it was filled halfway with water. I was totally drenched but naturally ecstatic to see everything was okay. I could not believe what had happened. Weren’t manatees supposed to be gentle creatures?
Because the water was clouded by the rain, I will never know exactly what happened. However, I am fairly positive that I disturbed a pair of adult manatees that were safeguarding an infant. The baby would explain the defensive behavior, and the incredible amount of agitation in the water would point to more than one manatee. Even in the moment of action, I am quite sure I felt at least two bodies push underneath me. The tide was going out, and I must have cornered them in a fairly confining space. My only other explanation is that dolphins somehow got mixed up in the melee.
I am humbled by the parents’ protective display. Manatees do not have fangs or claws, but they do have the will to survive and take care of their own. You or me would have done the same if a threatening stranger had come into our house. Next time, I will remember my place.
If you can shed any more light on what exactly happened please feel free to leave a comment.