At 3:05 am, I swipe the chiming alarm on my phone into silence and roll out of bed. It's snorkeling with Manatees day, and I can't be late.
... Coffee, I need coffee.
While the coffee is brewing, I disconnect the Olympus Tough camera, my trusty old GoPro Hero camera, and my brand new GoPro Hero 5 Black camera from my laptop.
All night long, they've been recharging their batteries, sucking on the laptop like a school of lampreys... but they are ready.
My drybag is prepacked with towels and gear, the charging cameras were the last item to pack.
I do a final check of my list ... yup, all is here, and I'm out the door.
At 4:00 am the drive to work is much busier with deer than the 7:00 am drive. They are everywhere, not today deer, nothing can delay this mission.
As I pull out on to State Road 24, a school bus flies by on the way to Cedar Key. That has to be my bus, yes! My background worry of the bus driver sleeping late vanishes.
At school, I arrive right behind the bus and my kids are gathered near the gym waiting to board. A quick head count shows a few missing. We have to leave on time to get to our charter an hour away in Crystal River. The kids were told we were leaving at 5:00 and to be there before that. We give it a few minutes and some of the kids text and call our missing partners, but to no avail.
Time to go. A quick roll call and head count and we are on the road. As they settle in for the long ride, I tell them, "Hey, this is kind of nerdy, but my NASA email says the International Space Station will be visible at 6:23 am, just about the time we get to the dive shop. It will come from the Northwest and cross to the Southeast."
Sleepy, polite, "Okay"s emanate from the back of the bus.
I wonder if I am the only one who gets excited about seeing that thing go by, but then, they are half awake and pumped to see Manatees, not space craft.
The driver and I chat off and on and in no time we arrive at Bird's Underwater Dive Center. The kids pile off the bus and I go into the dive shop ahead of them to let them know we are here. When I come out, the kids are in the parking lot, looking up. One girl is looking at her phone compass app and pointing to the Northwest. They are all scanning the skies, "What will the station look like?" one asks.
"A fast moving white light", I answer. I wonder if they can see my grin in the dark.
They were interested.
It is exactly the appointed flyover time.
We gaze up towards the northwest expectantly.
And then, there it is, zipping across the still dark sky.
I leave them gazing at the Space Station and go back inside the dive shop.
They are ready for us, and the kids file in to get fitted for wetsuits, masks, and snorkels. As soon as that is done, we all watch a short video about all the "don'ts" when it comes to swimming with wild Manatees. There are few "do's"... basically if you are quietly floating and the Manatees approach you... you are doing it right.
We squeeze into our new second skins, gather our gear and head to the boats. Our group will split between 2 boats. My group and I pile into Captain Joe's boat, a pontoon craft with bench seats. It is still dark as we edge away from the dock and head out into the shadowy river.
Early bird gets the Manatee...
Our boat moves very, very slowly down river to the first spot the guides want to check out. They are concerned we may have to really hunt for manatees, because the river population is thinning out as the water warms.
With the sun up, but just barely, we arrive at our destination. Immediately both guides are spotting Manatees in the twilight as are we. We anchor up and slip into the dark river. This is not a crystal clear spring dive. The river is green clear, and with the morning still more night than day, there's not much light to penetrate the gloom.
I wonder how the kids will react as they get into the still dark river, but all is well. We float together, listening to Paul point out nearby Manatee swirls, and then ... suddenly... they are with us.
|Mother and calf. The barnacles on her back are a souvenir of her time in the Gulf. They will die and detach in the fresh water of the springs.|
They are huge and appear without warning out of the murk. Time after time they come in for a nibble on the boat, a nibble on the anchor line, and ...holy joyalisciousness ... belly rubs from us.
These animals are seeking us out! Paul explains if they come up to you and roll over, they want a belly rub and it is okay to give them a gentle rub.
For what seems like a long time, we have this spot to ourselves. The Manatees are all around us and encounters with them are continuous, but always on their terms.
|Nathaniel gets a snuffle.|
The kids are having a great time. I am too, ... this doesn't seem much like work at the moment.
Twice, a manatee comes up and puts its bristly face in mine.
When they do, I prove yet again that you can laugh in a snorkel... not a yuck, yuck, guffaw kind of laugh, more of an excited OMG laugh... it might actually have been a "squee!"
The Sun is rising while we play with the Sirenia. Other Manatee tour boats are arriving as the the day brightens. Paul leads us on a short swim away from our boat and to a nearby spring. The water flowing into the river at the spring is clearer and packed with fish.
Snook hover mid water column, ,Mullet skim the surface, while young snapper are shoulder to shoulder near the bottom. We fish watch awhile, and then move out along a rope with floats. That rope acts as a boundary between an area that is a total Manatee sanctuary ... no humans allowed, and the area where we are snorkeling.
This allows a Manatee who has had his fill of human interaction to rest, take a break, or whatever a Manatee wants to do.
As we swim out, a lone Manatee is at the rope, his body on the sanctuary side. He hangs just beneath the surface peacefully nibbling on the algae encrusted rope boundary line.
I feel a sudden kinship with my fellow mammal ... like him, I am totally relaxed and ready for a some breakfast to nibble on.
It has been a fantastic morning with continuous Manatee contact from the moment we slipped into the dawn lit river hours ago.
Back on the boat, there are doughnuts, hot tea, or coffee, and funny banter between our guides.
The kids are happy ... chilly, but happy.
I'm happy... happy that the day went so well and that they never let me forget that once upon a time I said, " We should go snorkeling with the Manatees as a marine science field trip.
Back on land, they vote for a Hardee's breakfast and off we go to consume vast amounts of carbs and porky goodness.
It has been a Manateeastic Morning thanks to the good folks at Bird's Underwater Dive Center in Crystal River.
From the moment I first emailed them proposing the trip and getting information, to the final checkout, the staff at Bird's were friendly, helpful, and flexible when our trip numbers adjusted in the last week.
I can't say enough positive things about Bird's. This is a well run operation and I will continue to use them in what I hope becomes an annual trip.
Below is a selection of photos from the day.