The Wakulla River has returned to prominence now during Manatee Count 2013/2014. Over the past eight years, a growing population of manatees overwinters in Wakulla Springs. Just as a refresher, as wintertime temperatures cool the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, manatees migrate to warmer water in Florida's rivers and springs, which remain a constant temperature above 70 degrees. They will die of exposure in water temperatures lower than 68 degrees. (Read more about manatees in the Crystal River post.) The theory is that Wakulla is attracting overflow populations from Crystal River and Homosassa. After they spend the winter with plenty to eat in the big spring, they tell their friends back in the Gulf so more arrive each year. The last I heard there were 60 manatees at the park last winter.
I had some foreign visitors stay with me in early September-- Shaun is Scottish and Bettina is Swiss (follow her travel blog!) . They had been traveling together for months, starting in Canada and making their way out West to California, then winding their way South toward Miami so they could eventually catch a plane to Panama. Well obviously I had to show them Tallahassee's most remarkable natural landmark, so we embarked on the River Boat Tour on my day off.
These days the glass-bottom boats aren't used anymore. In the 20 years that have passed since my elementary school days, the spring has become too cloudy from runoff pollution. Most of it flows from Tallahassee over 20 miles away, which is yet another reminder that everything we do is connected and has consequence. I'm not kidding when I said Wakulla is the biggest spring is the world-- it pumps out 260 millions gallons of water a day. On top of that, Wakulla Springs is connected to the largest and deepest system of underwater caves in the world. This is a serious landmark, and it's depressing to think I've watched it decline in my lifetime. I don't know, these rivers and springs are a part of where I'm from, and one of the reasons for writing this blog is to try and show how special and beautiful they are so maybe other people will care too.
In any case, and it was during the river boat tour with Bettina and Shaun was when Manatee Count started in earnest-- we counted seven of them, including two calves.
Unfortunately, canoeing isn't allowed in the spring, so the only manatee viewing in the park must be done from the boat tour. So in mid October 2013, ten years after me and Scottie's boat flipping, Travis and I put in the river at the very same spot. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the river was really showing off. It was still warm out, but not hot. It was the magical time of year where you can go swimming and have a bonfire on the same day. I came prepared in my RealTree(™) bikini.
Every boater we passed, whether a small motorboat, kayak, or paddleboard had the same question- "Have y'all seen any manatees today?" The weather had cooled down just enough to entice manatees in from the Gulf, but it wasn't so cold that they were huddled together at the spring in the warmest water. We kept our eyes peeled for the tell tale sign of manatee activity-- water ripples, bubbles, and emerging snouts.
Then, there they were! A mother and calf!
Over by a dock we happened to paddle right by was a mama and her baby chowing down on the invasive hydrilla weed plaguing Florida's rivers. These dudes were really just munching away, and they didn't seem to mind our 17 ft canoe hovering above them for 15 minutes as we paddled right up next to them for the best pictures. I had never seen a manatee like this before. Unlike Crystal River with its theme park atmosphere, this encounter was just us and the manatees, not with 25 other people straining to get a glimpse. It was peaceful. We just looked at each other and went on our ways.
We paddled down six miles to the other bridge, the classic turnaround point. The upstream journey was a bit more strenuous, and paddling against the current makes for more difficult steering. I truly believe that canoeing is the perfect litmus test as to whether a relationship has got what it takes to survive. Travis and I went canoeing in the intercoastal near St. Augustine on our very first date, and not only did get along swimmingly, we even got lost in the maze of waterways and had to turn around a few times and didn't even get pissy. My last boyfriend and I couldn't even get the canoe loaded on the car without screaming at each other. Just saying.
After steering us marvelously upstream, Travis worked up a sweat and had to attempt his classic cannonball out the side of the canoe just for old times sake. The form is a little more difficult to pull together when your starting point is a rocking boat, but it was a valiant effort.
As it turns out, we got lucky and saw a total of five manatees on the river that day, including another mama/baby pair. After I posted pictures on the internet my smartass friend asked me how I know that I didn't just see the same ones repeatedly HUH?? Sadly, you can easily tell them apart because of their propeller scars, which distinguish them from their otherwise unintelligibly similar-looking buddies. One of the mothers had a big white scar across her back, and the other mother's tail was ragged with healed propeller gashes.
And just an addendum to this piece: my sister Scottie has returned home from France for a short visit, and just for old times sake we took a New Year's Eve Wakulla canoe adventure to reenact our classic trip.
Thankfully she didn't tip the canoe this time, nor did she even rock it. She was however, JUST AS HORRIBLE at paddling as I recalled, paddling approximately six strokes on our journey down river, and even turning completely around to focus on a snack break.
We checked for manatees the whole time and didn't see a one, giving up when we reached our put in spot by the first bridge. We had actually stepped out of the boat to start loading up when a paddleboarder called to us to tell us a manatee was hanging out under the bridge, so we rushed back into the boat to catch a look. It's not everyone who can flick through their phone to show their friends "This is what I did when I went home for Christmas". Only people from Florida.