Ms. Adventure

Ms. Adventure: Glad All Those Manatees Are So Nice

Kayaking on the Orange River amid masses of these giant mammals proved fun, though the writer was ever fearful of the random alligator.

BY June 7, 2019
Illustration by Gary Hovland

I love air-conditioning and I adore comfortable furniture. I like ice cubes in my cocktails and a remote control in my hand. I’m dependent on Wi-Fi and I need good cellphone service.

Humidity makes me wilt; heat causes me to be cranky. I’m terrified of mosquitoes and am convinced that they all carry the Zika virus. The very thought of snakes makes me cringe, and I am downright petrified by alligators.

And yet, here I am living in the untamed, tropical wilderness of Florida—which is why I stay in my condo a lot with the AC cranked down to 70 degrees. I’m also not particularly into exercise—breaking a sweat is not my thing.

But, like it or not, a girl needs to step out of her temperature-controlled comfort zone every now and then and convene with nature, which is how I ended up in a kayak on the Orange River one relatively recent morning. By the by, I also abhor mornings and don’t get along well with folks who are chipper before 10 a.m.

So, it’s curious that one of my very favorite people, Anne, is outdoorsy, loves mornings and is highly athletic.

I’m always trying to get Anne to join me for happy hour, while, on the other hand, she is often trying to get me to join her for a hike in the woods. Friendship is all about balance, so after the last time Anne and I met for cocktails, I suspected there was something outdoorsy in our future.

Anne suggested the kayaking excursion—and not only would we be kayaking; we’d be kayaking in the manatee-infested waters of Manatee Park in East Fort Myers.

The reason manatees flock to the park is there’s a power plant nearby that constantly discharges warm water—and it turns out that manatees love warmth almost as much as I love ice-cold AC.

The water in the Orange River by the power plant is basically an enormous manatee hot tub.

Having lived in Southwest Florida since I was a kid, I know a little bit about manatees. Most importantly, I know they’re strict vegetarians and that, unlike alligators and sharks, they have no desire to make a meal out of me. But, that doesn’t change the fact that these guys are really, really big. In fact, the West Indian manatee (the type you’ll most likely see around these parts) can grow up to 1,000 pounds. Who knew that sea grasses and marine algae could make you so plump? Maybe the keto diet of mostly protein and very few carbs is something I need to consider…

At Manatee Park, you can enjoy watching manatees from the comfort and safety of land, where there’s a large viewing area from which you can watch them playing, diving and coming up for air (they’re mammals, after all).

Or, you can rent a wee kayak, don a lifejacket and get right in the manatee hot tub along with hundreds of these giant creatures.

I’m not necessarily afraid of manatees—it’s the other creatures in the water that I can’t see that strike fear in my heart. You know, like water moccasins, pinching crabs and even stingrays (there have been reports of them in the Orange River)—but, mostly, I’m scared to death of alligators. My biggest fear was that a careless manatee would swim underneath my kayak and accidentally tip it over, when suddenly an alligator would dart over and have me for breakfast.

My fear of gators is a healthy one. Whenever I hear of dimwits on golf courses trying to get close to one of these monster reptiles just so they can get a photo of it on their iPhone for Facebook, I’m amazed by their lack of respect for these decedents of dinosaurs with such huge power and sharp teeth. And when I hear of tourists actually feeding gators, I have to wonder if those tourists actually deserve to have arms when they clearly don’t care about them.

When Anne and I were kayaking in the Orange River, I was perfectly in tune with the fact that we were in the alligator’s house. And if we got eaten, it was because we were willingly serving ourselves up as morning snacks. So, to say I was petrified as I adventured is putting it mildly.

Meanwhile, Anne was in heaven. Every time she saw a manatee (which was often), she called to them, “Hi, friend!” “Good morning, friend!”  “Come closer, friend!”

She’s like the swamp version of Dr. Doolittle.

Anne was filled with delight whenever she glimpsed a tail or saw a snout. And through her awe, I was able to imagine how Florida explorers in the 1400s mistook manatees for mermaids. They really are so peaceful and languid and shapely—and their faces are truly cute. They dipped and played and swam slowly, barely beneath the surface, enjoying the warm water and the sunny day. Lots of other kayakers were there, too, and plenty of folks watched from land. The manatees weren’t clumsily tipping over any kayaks; in fact, they were graceful and seemed to enjoy our company. And after a while, I forgot that I was in the alligators’ house. I relaxed and started snapping photos. I was in the manatees’ day spa and it was beautiful.

The only thing not beautiful was seeing so many propeller scars on the backs of these sweet sea cows. It makes me sad that the biggest enemies for manatees are inconsiderate boaters going too fast in no-wake zones. The scarring on these slow-moving animals is heartbreaking to see up close. We need to be more careful out there.

Anne and I spent a good two hours kayaking with the manatees, and honestly, I could have stayed even longer—it was a good workout for this exercise-challenged porch drinker.

Next time, though, Anne owes me some time over a bottle of wine under a ceiling fan on a porch. I’ll definitely be using my mermaid wine glasses for the occasion. 

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