Saturday, March 21, 2015

Weeki Wachee Wander

What a perfectly gorgeous day for kayaking. I had been wanting to go "play with the manatees" before the Florida weather became unforgivably hot and humid. As fate would have it, my day off coincided with one of the coldest days of the year, following a week of cool temperatures. When it gets cooler, the manatees head to warmer waters -- in a lot of cases, they congregate in freshwater springs and near power plants. That combination of weather events practically ensured manatee sightings.

It was FREEZING. The first thirty minutes I spent on the water, I was physically shivering. I was wearing my fleece hat, jacket, and even my fleece neck gaiter (don't laugh, I live in Florida). The cold weather made the warm spring water throw steam into the crisp morning air. It was like paddling through a dream. 

As the current guided me down the river, I took the time to sit back and observe the natural world going about its business. Small schools of fish commuted up and downstream in an orderly fashion. Occasional spring vents pressed up through the river floor, making the underwater foliage dance and sway. I spotted several deer breakfasting along the water's edge, as well as an otter weaving its way through the shallows. 

The water was an unbelievably breathtaking shade of turquoise. I felt an immense amount of gratitude for being able to experience this river on such a perfect morning.

I stopped for a quick mid-morning snack on this sandbar, watching the water swirl past me. 

Finally, I decided to get moving once more; it was far too cold to stay still for too long. As I shivered down the river, I began to wonder when I'd see manatees -- even one manatee would send me home happy. I silently told myself not to get my expectations up, and to just enjoy this beautiful morning, when --

ELATION! Manatees in motion move so much faster than I expected them to. This manatee was cruising against the current with speed and grace -- a current that had all but carried me to this point in the river. In an instant, I no longer felt the frigid, insistent wind. The manatee slowed as it glided past me and surfaced a few yards away from my kayak, then submerged and continued on its upstream journey. It was such a special moment for me, because it was my first time observing a manatee in the wild.

I paddled contentedly onward, enjoying my surroundings. (The Weeki Wachee River is really picturesque; if you have an opportunity to visit, do so.) I reached a spot in the river called "Hospital Hole," which is a 100-foot deep sulphur spring in the middle of the river - a favorite haunt for manatees. I counted at least ten manatees in that spot alone. They would rest with their heads under large rock overhangs about ten feet below the surface, and occasionally come up for air. There was a brand-new baby among them, covered in its infant "fur" and without a scar upon its precious back. Its mother would help it to the surface to breathe.

I spent over an hour in that spot, listening to the manatees breathing, and letting the sulphur spring's swirling current carry me in slow, wide circles around the manatees. It was so therapeutic. If anything is worth waking up at 3 AM to drive four hours for, that was it. Absolutely perfect day.

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