A few months ago I wrote about camping for a night at Manatee Springs State Park in northern Florida, in a fruitless attempt to see manatees in the wild. Turns out I didn’t need to go Florida. Yesterday I saw one a five-minute drive from where I live and work.
Yesterday morning I wasn’t teaching, but instead was preparing for the new school groups arriving later in the day, putting together binders and posting schedules and calling to confirm reservations. Around ten a coworker came back from taking a class to the dock and excitedly told everyone in the office they’d seen manatees. “The kids were bonking them on the heads with their dip nets accidentally! That’s how close they were!”
Me: “Wait, this was just now? Do you think they’re still there?”
Her: “Sure, probably!”
Me: (bolts out of office to get my camera, binoculars, and car keys)
I have the best boss in the world, because when I breathlessly explained to him that there probably manatees at the dock RIGHT NOW and I’d already finished all the really crucial preparation for the groups coming and I’d be back in twenty minutes and could I please please please PRETTY PLEASE go look for the manatees, his response was basically “of course you can.” Seriously, how many people have a job where they’re allowed to leave in the middle of the work day to go look for interesting wildlife? Soon I was on the road driving faster than I probably should I have as I zipped around the island’s southern tip toward the dock overlooking the salt marsh.
Manatees in the U.S. are strongly associated with Florida, and many people – including people who live on the coast of Georgia – are not aware that during the warmer months of the year manatees from the Atlantic coast population migrate north into Georgia’s salt marshes. I certainly didn’t know this before I moved here. The problem is that the water here is naturally murky with sediment, making them impossible to see except in the brief moments when they surface to take a breath. As a result, very little is known about the movements and habits of manatees in Georgia.
I was thankful when I arrived at the dock to see that there was no one else around – I knew if I actually saw one I would probably start jumping up and down and making high-pitched noises, and I’d just as soon there not be any crusty local boaters or fishermen around to witness that. I’d seen images before of the characteristic swirls left on the water’s surface by manatees passing below, and almost as soon as I’d stepped out onto the dock I saw what looked like those same patterns on the water in front of me, but with the water so opaque there was no way of really knowing what was down there. So there was nothing I could do but walk slowly back and forth along the length of the floating dock, keeping my eyes peeled.
At the dock’s far end I turned around and looked back, and my eyes were caught by a round gray shape protruding from the water near the end of the boat ramp, in the direction I had just come from. Hang on, there wasn’t a big rock in the water in that spot, was there–NO. OH MY GOD. I did then what I am always telling my students not to do and ran down the length of the dock, because the round gray shape had a snout… and it was slowly moving.
Guys, I literally was almost in tears. I’m not sure why finally seeing a wild manatee made me so emotional but it did. It quickly submerged again but after a few more minutes of waiting I was rewarded with a second glimpse of its whiskery nose when it came up to take a breath. I would have stayed longer, but I really did have to get back to work, so I went back to my car and drove away bouncing around in the seat with happiness.
Both times the manatee surfaced, it did so too briefly for me to get my camera on it, so unlike some of my previous epic wildlife encounters I don’t have a sweet video clip to share with you. Instead you’ll have to settle for my artistic interpretation of what I saw.
In conclusion: MANATEE.
P.S. Later in the day I told an eighth grade student I’d seen a manatee at the dock that morning. He responded, “What’s a manatee?” Sometimes I despair for the future of humanity.