Tales from the Cabin
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Swimming with the Manatees

A man meets some big-shouldered friends in the warm Florida waters

By Paul Sullivan
Published: December 17, 2010
Photo by dreamstime.com
On vacation from a Midwest winter, our friends with a cabin near Florida’s spring-fed Crystal River suggested we all go snorkeling to watch manatees, those behemoth critters of warm oceans. In the winter, manatees migrate to the warmer spring water, not unlike myself.
At the dive shop, the guy handing out rental wetsuits looked at me and said to his helper, “We need an extra-large here. Guy’s got, uh …   
“Big shoulders,” I suggested.
“Yeah,” he said, looking at my stomach. “Big shoulders.”
I’d never worn a wetsuit before. In the men’s changing area, I stepped into it easy enough, one leg at a time. But as I had one arm halfway up a sleeve, I was straining like a double-jointed side show contortionist. The stretchy rubber nearly pulled me over backwards. I couldn’t get the darn thing on.
I was about to collapse on the floor in frustration when my friend Judy, an experienced diver, knocked at the door and asked if I was about ready. “I can’t get my wetsuit on,” I whimpered. “I think I need a bigger one.”
She peeped in at my dilemma and laughed. The zipper goes in the back,” she said. Duh.
Waiting in the dive shop for our rental jon boat, I read about manatees. Vegetarians, manatees eat 15 percent of their body weight every day. They can grow to 13 feet, more than twice my size. They average between 800 and 1,200 pounds, and they can weigh over 3,000 pounds. Yes, that’s 3,000 pounds. And I was going to swim in the same waters. Was I nuts?
Slipping over the jon boat’s transom into the crystal clear water at King’s Spring, I saw eight to 10 manatees 20 feet below around the spring’s yawning mouth, too deep for a snorkeler to see well.  
I swam into a canal leading to another smaller spring. Approaching a bridge, I looked up to get my bearings. A crowd of tourists lined the railing. They pointed and yelled about the cruising manatees like spectators watching the bulls run in Pamplona.  
“Look. There’s one. Oooo! Look at that big one.”
Just as I entered the shaded water beneath the narrow bridge, I saw two huge manatees coming toward me. They had big shoulders, too, and ancient, wrinkled baby faces. Arms to flippers, we were like The Three Stooges squeezing through the door together. I did really want to trail my fingertips along their sides as they swam past me, but I gave them the respect they deserve.
Then, in the entrance to a narrow spring-fed run, a manatee pup entered my field of vision and stared at me. I swear it smiled. We watched each other for a few minutes before it swam off, leaving me to marvel at my luck.
Back at my friend’s cabin, I said, “We swam with the manatees and survived. Maybe next year, we can rent a cabin outside of Pamplona and run with the bulls.

Paul Sullivan has never met a cabin he didn’t like.
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