Floating with Florida’s Manatees
Our Sleep Storyteller-in-Residence, Phoebe Smith, talks about the magical moment behind her latest Sleep Story, Floating with Florida’s Manatees.
I’ll never forget the first time I put my head underwater. It was horrible. My eyes stung, I attempted to breathe — getting water up my nose, which fizzed uncontrollably — and a sensation of panic spread through my entire body. I was only a child (around 5 or 6-years-old) and my swimming teacher at the local leisure centre was trying to get me swimming without floatation aids. There wasn’t a single part of it I enjoyed. I hated not being able to touch the ground with my feet, I despised the far-too-complicated technique of having to breathe out through your nose and turn your head to the side to take in air. The more I was forced to do it as the years went by, the more I resisted and resigned myself to being a swimmer who never allowed herself to put her head beneath the surface.
Fast forward a good many years later and I - quite inexplicably – am now an advanced diver. It happened after I summoned up the courage to give snorkelling a go and for the first time I was able to look beneath the waves and actually see the underwater world I had been missing. The worry of taking in water through my nose was removed as the mask stopped that happening, the snorkel allowed me to breath slowly and normally and watching the world go by underwater was almost hypnotic.
As my confidence grew, a year ago I decided to try driving and fell in love with it immediately. It was that renewed love of the deep that took me to Florida — a place I admit I had been avoiding somewhat due to the crowds and theme parks for which the state is famous. I — naively — thought there was little more to it than that. But then I heard about the manatees.
With a whiskered face like a rambunctious puppy and a huge scoop-shaped tail, they look — to paraphrase a zoologist friend — like the carrying case you’d use to transport a seal around in. And every year they arrive in the Sunshine State in winter to Crystal River and Homosassa. Here they gather in large numbers to warm their rotund bodies in the naturally occurring hot springs, and we humans are allowed to get in the water with these friendly but shy vegetarians.
The rules are simple — float quietly and without kicking, allow them to come to you, and if they do, hold one hand out flat so they can rub against it if they want to.
The first time I touched one was utterly magical. It swam right up to my snorkel and regarded me curiously. It encircled me and then, when it was satisfied I was friend not foe, it turned over to reveal its tummy. I reached out my palm and it floated to it, spinning around to get me to stroke its back. Then, it simply swam away.
There were many more encounters, some were just curious glances, others seemed to almost pose for photos but then came my final one in Homosassa - one that I shall never forget.
It was a young female. She approached me suspiciously swimming right alongside so that her eye lined up with mine. Using her prehensile lip she felt my mask, trying to work out what I was. She stared intently and I, slowly, offered out my flattened hand towards her.
Before I knew what was happening, she took hold of it with her fin and pulled it to her chest so tightly that I could feel her finger bones clasping mine. She pulled me closer so our eyes were only separated by my mask. Then she loosened her grip, and allowed me to stroke her back. She kept rolling over and over seemingly playing with me in the water.
There we spent some of the most relaxing and magical moments of my entire life. That was until the call came.
“Time to go,” shouted the skipper. Reluctantly I gave her one final pat and began to swim back to the vessel. I was the last one in the water - the rest of the group had grown cold a while ago - but I was still surprised to see everyone gathered on the back deck watching me.
“That is adorable,” said one lady.
“Did you ever see anything like that…?” Asked her husband.
I looked at them quizzically.
“She’s following you,” explained the skipper. And I stopped to see my manatee friend hot on my feet, dutifully escorting me back to the boat. She nuzzled me again and span around as if indicating that playtime wasn’t quite over yet. I looked up at the skipper.
“We do have to go,” he said apologetically.
I looked her in the eye and stroked her goodbye, before climbing out of the water. She watched me from the surface so close I could take a photo of her with my DSLR camera without the need for a telephoto lens.
“Well, that really is as good as it gets,” laughed the crew. “You were very lucky.”
And as we departed and she disappeared from view beneath the rippling surface I decided they were half right. I was lucky that I was able to conquer my fear and learn to snorkel and dive, I was lucky to come to Florida in the first place and swim in this most beautiful of river systems. But, when it came to the manatee, it wasn’t luck, but rather privilege - that she had, for a time, allowed me into her world, had permitted me the most life-changing wildlife encounter I’d ever experienced and gifted me the greatest reward on offer for those prepared to forget their preconceptions of a place, tackle their apprehensions and, no matter how scared, put their head underwater and into the unknown.