Last week I woke up one morning to some sort of splash sound not very far from the boat I live on. „Another dolphin“, was my first thought but somehow it sounded heavier and there were more splashes that caught my attention and made me get up into the cockpit.
The splash originated from the tail of a manatee on the barely covered sandbar right in Fort Myers Beach Harbor. And it was not alone.
It was not my first manatee encounter. Over the last weeks every now and than one sticked its nose out of the water, breathing like a long sneeze and and than disappear again. But never before I heard about manatees beach them selves for whatever reason. So I jumped in the dinghy to get a little closer to the scene and have a look.
From maybe 200-foot distance I counted four of them somewhat piled on top of each other. And from the swirling water around them I could see another four or five circling in deeper water. A whole family, flock, herd – whatever social structure manatees live in, it was there. Flapping tails, pushing noses, heavy bodies…
The water was wild and the big mammals seemed to push each other around in the mud. Was this play? Did they just cuddle? – At least one, maybe two, in the middle appeared to be stuck and it almost looked like the others were trying to help them get off.
Later that day I did some research and learned, that they are actually very social, even if they are often encountered alone. And if I witness one stuck in the sand again on a falling tide I now know that should be reported to the FWC Wildlife Alert hotline on 1-888-404-3922 to maybe have someone help them. But I did not know that and I was not worried as the tide was coming in quite strong.
No doubt, if stuck, there by accident, it would have been only a question of a few more minutes to be free again. They seemed to know that as they became more and more agile trying to push those in their middle even more toward the rim. Flipping my outboard engine up I rowed my inflatable a little closer, clearly tempted by curiosity and at the same time trying to keep a reasonable distance. Speechless drifting in the morning sun, I could not decide between feeling sorry for them and being grateful for this very unusual encounter.
Another dinghy came closer. Moving quickly, it overtook me. The guy got close enough to take a few shots on his cell phone – not even looking at those ripples that marked the submerged others. He slowly circled the scene, took a few more pictures and off he went, saying something I could not understand over the constant barking of his dog.
Whatever it was saying, he seemed at first to be addressing me, than at the huge bodies in the mud, than again at me. I was not speechless anymore but kept my mouth shut to so as to not start the day grouching as he zoomed back into the mooring field.
And after I calmed down, a sad feeling of embarrassment filled in. As boaters, be it for an afternoon trip or living out on a hook, we often have a great chance to become witnesses to amazing moments. But this comes with the burden of a few responsibilities. Some by laws that we have to follow, but more by the fact that we simply do not belong there.
We need a good chunk of science and technology to stay afloat and be independent. As visitors to this environment we should be curious for what it has to offer and behave as smart guests, trying to be inconspicuous, observe quietly and be respectful to the natives we visit.
Than they might let us into their world. Like these mammals who I ever pictured as almost sedate animals, moving their heavy body slowly through the water. An opinion that changed in a second – tails flapped, and the water seemed to be boiling right in front of me. The manatees then submerged in the muddy water and, it seemed, all of them where aiming straight towards me. Eight huge bodies, barely submerged at a speed of maybe ten miles an hour over a shallow sandbar threw a wake of more than a foot. A scene from a Hollywood horror movie could not be more authentic.
„You do not eat humans, don‘t you? No need to flip me over”, was all I thought as I kneeled down in the boat, holding on to the sides. They didn‘t. All of them passed right under me and than spread out. Some came back – like they wanted to look why I am staying – and than all disappeared towards the mangroves.