Me and the manatee...
© David Volk

" Sometimes I see me as old manatee
Headin' south as the waters grow colder
Tries to steer clear of the hum-drum so near
It cuts prop scars deep in his shoulder
But that's how it goes (that's how it goes), right to the end
Though his body's quite flexible, that barnacle brain don't bend."
--From "Growing Older, But Not Up" by Jimmy Buffett

Yes, I know it's been almost a month since I went to Florida to go swimming with manatee and yes, I know there have been a number of people who asked me how the trip was. And, no, I haven't gotten back with them before I reported back to all of you.

And, yes, there is a reason I haven't gotten back to you sooner.

I was on deadline.

Granted, the subject of meetings technology may be nowhere near as sexy as hanging out in warm water with giant, floating, baked potato shaped animals who could tackle you at any minute because their bodies are so big that they can't see where they are going, but I like to be able to eat and pay my bills, so there you have it.

Or, at least you will once I finish this piece on the experience.

For starters, to call it swimming with manatees is a bit of a misnomer. People who shell out the money to go out in overcast 44 degree temperatures and lower their wetsuit clad bodies into the 72 degree Crystal River  aren't so much swimming as they are hanging around in the water hoping that the critters will come up to them slowly and gently, so as not to bowl them over. If the animals do come up to the swimmers, people are allowed to touch them, but only with one hand at a time. Otherwise, it would be considered riding and that is illegal. In addition, swimmers are not allowed to swim over to manatees they see floating in the distance. If the ever-curious seacows are interested, they will make their way over to visit. If they choose not to do so, however, swimmers cannot swim over to them because that would be considered chasing them and that is illegal. Also, if the animals are found floating just inside an animal reserve, swimmers can't venture in after them no matter how close they are to the watery boundary line. Because, you guessed it, that would be illegal.

The other catch is that this attraction involves snorkeling.

That's not a problem for most people, but it was for me. It's not so much the thought of using a snorkel, really. It's the thought of trying to asphyxiate myself by putting a mask over my head so that I can't breathe through my nose then completing the drowning process by putting a bent, hollow stick in my mouth and trying to convince myself to breathe through it once I put my head in the water.

So, you're telling me I should place my confidence in a tube that anybody can put their hand over while I'm not looking or that water can come down if I go too far under water?

No thank you.

I finally recovered from a youth filled with a nose so congested that I had to breathe through my mouth throughout all of first grade just for this? I don't think so.

It's not that I hadn't tried before. I put on a mask and snorkel at the Red Sea in Israel, but it made me so nervous that I just held my breath before sticking my head in the water with my nose outside the mask for seconds at a time so I could look at beautiful fish floating by. I came even closer in the waters around Nha Trang, Vietnam, but I just couldn't wrap my head around it even if the tropical fish were prettier than the ones I'd seen in the holy land.

Still, I reasoned, I was on a story and I couldn't very well tell my editor, "Uh, yeah, I know you sent me to do this, but would you accept a first person piece about dog paddling with manatee instead?"

After 5 minutes of holding my breath and sticking my head under water, I finally worked up the nerve almost can't even say this...put the snorkel in my mouth. Granted, my head was still above water and it took me five minutes to work up the nerve to try to breathe through it, but it was still progress. I put the mask over my face two minutes and finally put my face in the water a year later.

Then I looked through my mask and saw tarpon, catfish, and thousands of other of our finned friends swimming along. As I slowly floated along I saw a group of six people surrounding a curious manatee in the distance and I heard....Darth Vader swimming behind me. His breathing was raspy, shallow and fast, but he was gaining on me so quickly that I could feel it in my mask and hear it echoing throughout my cranial cavity.  

Just at the moment I expected him to catch up with me and say, "I am your father, Luke," someone standing nearby tapped me on the shoulder to catch my attention and I was so startled I inhaled half of Homossassa Springs and nearly drowned.

On the plus side, at least it frightened away Darth Vader. Until I stuck my head back in the water and realized I was the one with the raspy breathing. Although I never got over the initial sense of being weirded out by the sound of my own labored breathing, I eventually gained enough confidence to snorkel long enough to wonder where all the manatee went to.

And then I accidentally smacked one with a fin.

Considering that most of these small-headed, vegetable munching creatures weigh upwards of a ton, it barely phased it, but I still felt bad when I came up for air.

While my head was still above water I looked for the telltale signs of floating manatee. They weren't hard to miss because most of the ones that had surfaced were surrounded by a circle of five or six people with their heads under water and their snorkels sticking out. Locating the nearest one, I put my arms out and prepared to spring back into the water only to realize that I had reached out and unintentionally fondled one of the women from my boat as she passed by.

Embarrassed, I immediately yelled my apology to a person whose head was under water and couldn't hear me, then took off and swam toward the closest crowd. Unfortunately, I was going too fast and only managed to swim into the group and over the manatee.

Yes, that's me, David Volk, floating menace.

Discouraged, frustrated and worried that my wedding ring was slipping off, I decided to swim back to the boat to drop off my ring all the while pondering how I was going to explain to my editor my inability to do so much as even touch a manatee while on what was a pleasant time for some, but had become a death-defying effort for me. I didn't have to wonder long, though.

As I made my way to the boat, one of the critters swam up beside me and followed me all the way back.
I admit I somehow managed to miss the two males having sex with a female and a baby nursing, but this was good enough for me.

Sure, I made my way back to the crowds and felt the elephant like skin of one big one and the soft, smooth skin of another, but none beat the thrill of that first touch.

I eventually swam back to the boat when I got the aquatic equivalent of a Charlie Horse cramp like you wouldn't believe, but it was still all worth it.

From a man who's wondering if he's the only one who didn't know about the potassium thing,

David G(ulf of Mexico) Volk