I’m taking a break from the rigors of grad school by exploring Florida. Yesterday I swam with the manatees in Crystal River. This was one of the coolest wildlife experiences I have ever had. Where else can you go where you are virtually assured of finding a wild animal larger than you are, who will approach you and want to be scratched? Especially such an unusual animal… the manatee’s closest relatives all live on other continents, so never before had I seen an Afrotherian in the wild.
I was taken by boat to the edge of a manatee sanctuary, where I dropped into the murky water with my mask and snorkel. The visibility was poor, but that didn’t matter since the manatees would come right up to the human visitors. I could see every deatil of their graceful and muscular tails, their bizarre mouths, their tiny eyes, and their rough, nearly bald wrinkled skin, which emitted dirt and algae when scratched with my fingernails. I hope someone is doing a population genetics study of manatees, because it would be about the most fun thing in the world to swim around scratching manatees and collecting the dead skin cells that slough off for molecular analysis.
Manatees are endangered, but this ecotourism shows promise. The human community there seems to understand that preserving the manatees is the key to their economic survival. The manatees have protected areas where humans can’t visit them, but since they gladly venture outside the borders, ecotourists aren’t likley to miss a close-up encounter. There are still problems with motor boats, which can slice a manatees right up; in addition, it appears to be challenging to clear aquatic plants for boaters while still maintaining enough food for the manatees. I am optimistic, though, that manatees and humanity can continue to co-exist and investigate each other for years to come.