While we waited for the other passengers to arrive (the canopied, open-air boat holds up to six people plus the captain) I took some pictures of the sign in the marina. This seemed a promising start to our adventure. Manatees are large, slow-moving, aquatic mammals that inhabit coastal waters and rivers. Although they cannot leave the water, they – like all marine mammals – depend on air to survive. A manatee that is actively swimming needs to come up to the surface to breathe every three or four minutes; if it is resting, it can go as long as 15 minutes without air. Usually only the nose and nostrils are visible when they come up to the surface for air.
When the rest of the passengers arrived – a family of four from Boston – the captain started steering us out of the marina. We hadn’t even left the marina when he spotted the telltale “footprint” of a manatee coming up to the surface for air. The footprint is a flat spot on the water’s surface that is formed by the up and down motion of the manatee’s paddle-shaped tail as it swims along. When you see one of these, you know there is a manatee close by.
In fact, there were two! The captain powered off the boat and we spent some time watching them through the polarized sunglasses given to us to see beneath the water. They certainly don’t look like very much from the surface:
Under the water, however, they are huge – an average adult manatee measures about 10 feet long and weighs between 800 and 1,200 pounds. Their young, called calves, weigh about 60 or 70 pounds at birth and measure about 3-4 feet long. These gentle giants, also called Sea Cows, are herbivores and feed mostly on sea grasses and freshwater vegetation. Their closest relative is the elephant.
The species found in Florida is the West Indian Manatee. It is considered endangered. Although they have no natural enemies, and live to about 60 years in the wild, a high number of fatalities are from human-related causes. These include collisions with watercraft; being crushed and/or drowned in canal locks and flood control structures; ingesting fish hooks, litter, and monofilament line; and entanglement in crab trap lines. However, loss of habitat is the most serious threat facing Florida’s manatees today. Development along coastlines not only damages the sea grasses they depend on, but also degrades water quality and destroys the natural warm water springs that provide warmth during periods of cold weather. Manatees require a temperature of at least 68°F (20°C) to survive; prolonged exposure to colder temperatures causes stress and even death.
This manatee has a scar on its back from a boat propeller. The captain said that while seeing manatees with scars used to be quite common, the number has decreased recently as a result of laws requiring boats to drive slowly in areas where manatees are known to be found.
Manatees like to hang out near the walls of the marina, so the captain steered us down into the side channels to look for some. We found several more, including a small calf about half the size of its mother. We also saw a pair of baby Blacktip Sharks cruising along; far from being scary, these sharks were only a few feet long. It was hard to take their small, cute triangular fins cutting through the water too seriously! Though they are known to bite people – the majority of shark bites in Florida are probably attributable to this species – attacks by these small predators have never resulted in a fatality. I would have liked to have gotten a photo, but they were moving too fast.
We entered the channel that leads to the gulf and spent some time searching for manatees in the mangrove forest.
A flock of white herons flew past us, and we spotted a White Ibis in one of the inlets. I noticed an Osprey perching in a dead tree, and the captain told us that there used to be a nest on top of the tree, but that it had broken off in a storm; now they nested in a crotch of the tree below where this fellow was sitting.
We didn’t spend much time in the channel. I was a little disappointed, as I would have liked to have followed the channel all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Though it was neat to see the manatees, I think I would have preferred an all-around nature excursion looking for other types of wildlife instead of focusing on just one species. Still, a manatee isn’t something you see every day in Ottawa, and I always enjoy getting out onto the water!
After the manatee tour ended we went back to the hotel and made reservations for the air boat ride. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I’d heard they are quite loud and can go very fast; this didn’t seem to bode well for any wildlife watching. Doran and I sat in the front seat, and put on the ear protectors given to us by the captain. At first the boat did go very fast, and it seemed just like a ride at an amusement park with the boat slaloming along the watercourse. The captain did stop from time to time, pointing out things of interest.
He knew where a Black-necked Stilt was nesting right beside the channel used by the airboats, and slowed to the boat to a crawl so that the wake didn’t wash over the nest and destroy it. The stilt was not too happy when we stopped to take photos; she flew across the channel and started putting on a distraction display not unlike that of a Killdeer. As I was sitting on the side next to the nest, I wasn’t able to photograph her.
Once we were past the nest the boat took off at high speed again. We turned a corner and startled a flock of about 20 smallish brown shorebirds; they flew away too quickly for me to identify. We also saw three ducks in the marsh, but when I saw their utter stillness and the white wing patches that didn’t match any duck I knew I realized they were just decoys. Two Great White Egrets flying off and an Osprey perching on top of a tree were real, however.
We entered a mangrove tunnel where humourous signs saying “Violators will be shot!” and “Survivors will be shot again!” were posted. It wasn’t clear what violations merited such drastic punishment, though this portion of the swamp is privately owned by the Billie family and they might have been referring to trespassers.
The captain stopped so we could have a good look at the mangrove forest, a complex subtropical ecosystem composed chiefly of three different species (red mangroves, black mangroves, and white mangroves) which can tolerate both the low-oxygen soil and the saline water that floods the roots during high tide. Mangrove forests help reduce coastal erosion caused by normal currents and tides, as well as the storm surges resulting from hurricanes. I kept searching among the tangled root system for snakes and other wildlife taking shelter there, but didn’t see any.
We came to a large opening in the forest that looked like a huge pond. Although we spotted four Double-crested Cormorants swimming along and diving for fish, we didn’t see any alligators. The captain explained that it was alligator mating season, which means they are not as easy to find as they are during the winter. As we had already seen plenty of alligators on this trip – and from a safe distance on the land – I wasn’t too unhappy that we didn’t see any on the air boat ride. We finished the ride with a couple of 360-degree turns before heading back to base, passing the three decoy ducks bobbing serenely on the water again.
After the tour ended we were offered the chance to hold a baby alligator, and both Doran and I enthusiastically accepted, though I would have preferred to hold it without the elastic band fastening the alligator’s mouth shut. The alligator felt like a solid mass of muscle, unexpectedly heavy and dense. Fortunately it didn’t pee on either one of us (according to one of reviews online, it peed on their 8-year-old kid!) and I was disappointed when I had to give him back. The alligator handler was very knowledgeable, and told us quite a bit about the alligators. She mentioned that they are allowed to keep the alligators for educational purposes. I think she said this one was about three years old.
On our way back to the parking lot I stopped to photograph a couple of young alligators basking on the bank at the edge of the water. Yes, there was a fence between me and them!
During our talk with the alligator handler, we mentioned some of the birds we had found so far in Florida, and I remembered that I still had yet to see any terns or beach birds. We asked her if there was a public beach close by where we could see some gulls and terns, and she gave us directions to the beach in Naples, about 20 minutes away. On our way out we spotted a Northern Flicker working on a snag and heard (then saw) a Chimney Swift soaring overhead.
Although not primarily a wildlife viewing excursion, it was a great all-around experience, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Corey Billie’s air boat rides to anyone.
Nice manatee… nose. 🙂 I’ve always had a fondness for manatees since doing a high school report on them.
They are really interesting, aren’t they? I wish I had been able to see more than just the nose, but I guess I would have had to go in the water to do that….and there were sharks. 🙂