#32like12 – Birthday Swim with Manatees

DCIM100MEDIAI don’t get terribly excited about birthdays. I’ve had some great ones, but for the most part they have a way of disappointing you since they’re an opportunity for people you care about to disappoint you by not showing up. I decided to skip all of that this year and runaway for the weekend. Specifically the BFF and I had grand plans of stowing away on a plane to somewhere fun (thanks, buddy passes), but apparently the rest of the world had the same idea for their long Presidents Day weekend so all of the flights were full.

We refused to give up on a weekend of adventure and while deciding on a roadtrip destination I landed on an idea; to ring in #32like12. Instead of attempting to have a glamorous grown up trip, which to be honest doesn’t appeal to me at all, I would do the silly things that I would have loved as a kid, starting with the primary goal of the trip – to swim with manatees at Crystal River.

Seemingly all little girls go through a horse phase at some point. I skipped that entirely and had a manatee phase.  Looking back I can’t pinpoint what it was about them that made me I love them so. They are commonly described as a giant baked potato, and while I think they’re so cute with their little fuzzy faces, some have said that they have a face only a mother could love. I’ve wanted to swim with manatees for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never managed to do it. My parents tried for spring break when I was 12 but that trip has fallen into family lore as one of our most failed trips, since it rained all weekend, my uncle was sick, and we wound up in a little town that later had a major KKK controversy.

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Manatees find their way into Crystal River and Three Sisters spring when the gulf waters get cooler and they’re looking for warmth. All weekend there had been approximately 200 manatees in the spring and river, but on Monday morning, the temperatures of the gulf had pushed over 70 and most of the manatees had gone back out to sea. Only 6 had been spotted in the spring that day. Captain Paul from Bird’s Underwater offered us refunds but promised no one would work harder to find us a manatee than him. Undeterred the BFF and I turned down the refund and wedged ourselves into wetsuits in the middle of the gift shop/dive shop surrounded by a herd of loud boy scouts and families, and watched a short video on proper video etiquette (short version- leave them alone.) before climbing onto the boat, where we managed to avoid the boy scouts and were greeted with a box of on board snacks including cheese crackers and Slim Jims. This is the glamorous live.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious about the entire thing. Not only was there the fear of possibly not seeing a manatee but I was also worried if it would live up to what I had hoped for when I was 12 years old, I’m also on the fence about the entire concept of eco-tourism. Despite wanting to get in the water with manatees for literally decades, I also favor respecting the endangered species so that they can go about their life.

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I had nothing to worry about on any count.

When they weren’t joking around and picking at each other, Captain Paul and “merman” Robbie spoke very reverently of the manatees and clearly had a great respect for them beyond just the strict regulations on how we interact with them (this is the only place in the world that it’s legal to swim with manatees).

We also did see 3 manatees on our approximately three hour boat ride.

And I loved it.

Yes, I was about as graceful as a cat with an inner ear problem while I was trying to move around in the water with the increased buoyancy of the wet suit, but I didn’t have to be graceful for anyone. My one regret is that I’m pretty blind without my glasses and after mentioning it on the boat I found out that they have prescription goggles if I had asked for them. I could make out the manatees ok, but I think I would have had a much better time with them. Over all I think I enjoyed it more than I ever would have at 12 because I had realistic expectations. At 12 I would have been terribly disappointed that I only saw 3 and didn’t get “kisses” from a manatee and was a bumbling fool in the water. Instead I was awed to float above a sleeping manatee, to be about a foot from one at one point, and to see a mom with her baby. Plus I had a lovely boat ride around the river with a couple of cool guys while I sipped a Capri Sun and munched on lemon cookies.

The manatees didn’t let me down on my birthday.

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