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How now, Sea Cow?
The first stop on our trip brings us to Lake City, Florida. A conveniently located campground between some long-time friends and Manatee Springs, Florida. The spring here on the Suwanee River creates year round 72 degree water and a perfect wintering ground the West Indian Manatee.
This trip marked the second time I have personally been drug out to see a big ball of blubber floating in the water grazing on sea grasses.
I do admit, each time I am mystified.
But, not by the manatees themselves, but by the number of people that are out hoping to set their eyes on these quiet creatures. It is amazing to see the turn out that these animals get, despite resembling large rocks in the crystal clear water.
Now, now, I am not going to call everybody crazy. I do get it…kind of. They are an extremely rare species; to the point that visiting one of these springs in the winter time is your only reliable method of actually putting eyes on one as the average person.
While most people restrict their quest for the elusive manatee to the piers built out into the pools frequented by the creatures, that isn’t exactly our style.
Here in the Bozgoz family, we like to go deeper.
After checking out the pier to make sure there were manatees in the spring, we brought out our kayaks and our paddle board and my friend Dan and I started to sweat, not out of fear for alligators also being in the water (after all, this is Florida), but because we have to blow up 3, 10 ft+ inflatables…
And we forgot our electric pump.
But after a little bit of work, it was time to get in the water and see what we could find.
As we were pushing off, we notice a small alligator sunning itself on the opposite shore. This observation brings to light something highly unique about this particular area: when looking around, the landscape resembles a mushy swamp you would expect to find in the deep south. A swamp full of thick green algae, hidden alligators, snapping turtles, and water moccasins. The shore is lined with the spiked knees of cypress trees and thick Spanish moss covers every branch in sight. The type of swamp your typical Oregonian would stay away from. But when you look down the water is so clear, the depth of the water beneath you becomes trivial. You can see every rock, sunken branch, or blade of sea grass the manatees are here for, no matter the depth.
It is somewhat eerie how fast your mind swaps between the feelings associated with each landscape, although the true difference is merely looking at the horizon vs. looking down. One second you are looking into the water with the calming feeling of white sand beaches and crystal clear water; but all it takes is a glance upward to bring a flood of tensity, looking for the next danger to appear out of the murk as the scenery changes to dense swamp.
This brings up a funny side bar that we have noticed about people’s tolerance for different dangers based on where you grew up. As somebody that grew up in the high-desert climate of Southern Oregon: rattle snakes, bears, and mountain lions are all things that are relatively prevalent in the surrounding landscape. I spend a lot of time out in the woods (often alone) and it is not something that I think about. I take steps to properly protect myself, but it is not a thought that consumes me or would ever ruin my time worrying about it. However, when I travel to a place like Florida, knowing what lies in nearly every body of water in the state (alligators, snapping turtles, water moccasins, etc.), I can’t help but wonder if I really should be swimming in this “sweet tea” colored water that I can’t see through. When you ask somebody that grew up in that environment, they say, “Ah, I never really think about it.”
But bring that same person to a wilderness area in the backcountry of Oregon and they may be concerned that a 200 lb mountain lion is currently stalking them from the shadows, where my response would be, “Ah, I never really think about it.”
After a short paddle from the boat launch out towards the main river, we arrived in the area that we had previously seen the rocks…I mean manatees. As we cruised past the gentle giants, words like, “Oh my gosh look at its cute face.” “It’s so adorable.” “Is that a baby?!?! Is that a baby?!?! Darn, no it’s not,” began to fill the air from none other than my wife. The kids were relatively silent, but not Lindsay. Oh no! She was very vocal about how much she was enjoying her time with the sea cows.
Thea began to feel adventurous and climbed over onto the paddle board with Dan, even standing up to reduce the glair off the water and get a better look at the manatees.
Around this time, we saw a Double-crested Cormorant (pictured above) that caught and swallowed a fish that was so big (for its size) that it extended down its throat with the tail still sticking out of its beak. Before the fish succumbed, it gave the bird a run for its money, flopping around and making the bird’s head violently swing around like he was the lead singer of a heavy metal band. Even after the fish had stopped moving, the bird was not able to bend its neck back into a normal position because it was so big, that it extended all the way into its beak. This lead to some hilarious hijinks, as the bird’s compadres began to chase him around in the water, hoping to get a piece. The bird swam around for his life, beak pointed straight in the air. Unfortunately we did not get a video of the other birds chasing him, but we did get a video of the bird swimming with his excellent posture thanks to its fish neck brace.
Other notable sights include some large fish that were occasionally spotted patrolling the depths, numerous turtles sunning themselves on rocks, and Lindsay and our friend Lauren diving into the cold water at the main spring.
In the end, it’s safe to say that we enjoyed our trip to Manatee Springs. Even if I can’t bring myself to feel the joy in my heart, merely laying eyes on a manatee like my wife does. I do get that sweeping feeling, instead getting to watch my wife in her element experiencing something that she loves, and watching my kids see and do things that I never even dreamed of as a child.
This first trip was a good reminder of how this adventure is going to allow us to meet up with great friends and have the wildest experiences that we will be able to reflect on for the rest of our lives.