Our list of things to do when we got to Florida looked something like this:
1. find a roof to put over our heads
2. swim with manatees
Florida is the best place in the world to see endangered West Indian manatees in large herds. During the winter months the coastal waters get too cold for them so they retreat into the warm waters of rivers and springs, much like the one we visited on this day.
My lab mate spends half her time researching manatees (traitor) and gave us the insider info on where and when to go see them. We took her advice and headed out early in the season to find them. We came across a small group feeding along a canal that consisted of a few adults and a calf. The calf was curious and started hanging out underneath our canoe, so I took a dip in to get a closer look at him. You really can see why they are most closely related to elephants by their leathery skin and finger nails (finger nails!). The moniker “sea cow” they’ve acquired from centuries of grazing on sea grass can be somewhat misleading. Most individuals are know by their scars and wounds (typically from boat propellers) and this little one was no exception, although luckily the mark on his head was just a surface scratch etched in the algae on its skin.
Jim Gaffigan the comedian has this bit where he calls manatees the ‘retired football players of the sea’ because they are so large and slow moving. It’s pretty funny, and true. Even though they are hefty, they have very little body fat (which contributes to their susceptibility to cold water). A few minutes later the calf swam back to its mom and I hopped back into the canoe and we parted ways. Oh I almost forgot….I learned that manatee females have two nipples, one under each arm pit… presumably so mom can continue grazing on sea grass on the bottom while nursing. Can you imagine? Arm pit nipples. So now you know.