Paddling for Manatees on the Homosassa River in Florida

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(Story and photos by By Dana Benner)

It was an unusually “cool” March morning when my wife and I edged our kayaks into Florida’s Homosassa River, located along the Gulf Coast.  I put cool in quotes as this is according to Florida terms, as coming from the snow and ice that covers New Hampshire, where temp are in the 30s, the 50s and 60s of Florida were rather balmy. Floridians, bundled up like they were on an Arctic seal hunt, watched as these two crazy Northerners, dressed in shorts and Salt Life shirts, slipped their craft into the calm waters of the river. The end product of this trip was a truly amazing experience in more ways than one.

Gaetane Benner on the Homosassa River.

My wife Gaetane was relatively new to kayaking, so when I got the assignment to do a piece on the Florida manatee from a publication in Australia, I figured it would be a good chance to get her some experience on the water. The slow moving waters of the Homosassa River were the perfect place for her to get her feet wet (pun intended) and hone her skills. Besides, it is always good to have an extra camera along. As we were flying south from New Hampshire, our kayaks stayed at home. Instead we would be renting our craft when we arrived.

Before launching I inspected the kayaks and reviewed all safety rules with my wife. I made sure that her PFD was properly fitted and that she was wearing it.  One thing I noticed during my trips to Florida is that many people don’t wear PFDs. Ok, they have them, but they don’t wear them.  A PFD does no good if it is strapped to the rear deck of the kayak.  How many people have drowned in “calm” waters because they were not wearing a PFD?  I didn’t want Gaetane to be one of them.

An anhinga sunning itself by the river.

In dry bags I put our gear that we didn’t want to get wet.  Cameras, wallets and first-aid kits all went into the bag.  I gave Gaetane the GoPro type camera, in its waterproof housing.  I attached the floating handle just in case it ended up in the water.  As were going to get wet, from paddle wash and from entering and exiting the kayaks, we both wore Craco water shoes.  Once everything was in place we headed out.

Our launch site was in one of the numerous canals that run off of the main river.  This was a perfect place for Gaetane to practice before we moved off into the river.  I had her practice turns and backing up.  I watched her hand placement on the paddle, and corrected her as needed, but that was not often.  After 30 years of marriage I knew she could figure things out as we went.  Once she got her “sea legs” we moved out.

Like all waterbodies in Florida, the Homosassa River has no shortage of motorized boat traffic. The good news is that it rarely gets going until the sun has warmed the area a bit.  For this reason we decided to get an early start.  I am glad we did as we had the entire river to ourselves, so a short while anyway.

An early morning mist was lifting up off the cooler water as we glided past million dollar homes. As we moved past these towers of economic prowess, I wondered if the owners realized what they had just outside their doors.  We let the current take us, knowing full well that we would be going against it on our way back.

As we moved past those homes that I would never own, or really want to, I started seeing wildlife.  A turtle here; a heron there, I hoped that these sightings were a sign of things to come. As I photographed the wildlife I saw, I kept an eye on my wife; just to make sure she was alright.  It was then that I heard her gasp, while at the same time I heard a load blowing noise; a noise similar to a diver clearing their snorkel, only louder.  A manatee, the animal that we were searching for, had surfaced alongside her kayak. As I turned towards her a manatee broke the surface of the water right in front of me. Soon after, another and then another surfaced.  They were all around us and it seemed that they were checking us out.  It seems that we were moving across a pod.  There was a smile on Gaetane’s face a country mile long and I’m sure that I was grinning ear to ear as well.

All of a sudden my kayak lifted out of the water.  I grabbed my paddle, which was lying across my lap and thinking I had hit a submerged log, I prepared to bring my craft under control.  I then realized that a manatee had surfaced right under my kayak. As soon as it realized that it had hit me it submerged again.  Keeping the paddle out of the water I let the kayak settle back onto the water.  We braked and sat in one spot watching the action happening all around us.  I started counting and photographing as many manatees as I could.  We witnessed what we assumed was mating and feeding.  There were manatees of every size.  We finally lost count at about 30 and the manatees just kept appearing.

The Florida manatee is a sub-species of the West Indian manatee, and like all marine mammals, they are protected by federal law.  Manatees are herbivores, feeding solely upon seagrass and other vegetation that is found in freshwater and estuarine systems.  They require warm-water habitats with temps in the 70 degree range.  During the winter they enter the rivers along the Florida coast to feed.  The rivers along the Gulf Coast, because they are stream fed, stay in that temperature range for the entire year.

As manatees are listed as endangered and protected, we had only hoped to see one or two during our trip, but we were treated to so much more.  I credit this to the fact that we were using kayaks and not one of the many motorized tourist boats that ply these waters.  In fact, not long after our manatee encounter, we started seeing many of these boats approaching us.  Soon we spent more time dodging these boats than we did looking for manatees. There were some close calls.  With the arrival of the boats, and their propellers, we noticed that the manatees started staying down in the deeper water. We quickly figured out that once the boats past, the manatees started to reappear.  Manatees have learned to stay away from these boats as more and more animals are injured or killed by the propellers.

With the increase of boat traffic and the danger to both the animals and ourselves that this traffic brought with it, we decided to head back.  It took us much longer going back than it did going out due to fighting the current, as slow as it was.  We saw a few manatees on the way back, but nothing like we had seen earlier.  The boat traffic was just too heavy.

On the way back we saw numerous people in kayaks, some with small children, which concerned me. None were wearing PFDs, even the children.  Even though the river is by no means “fast water”, there is always the chance of going in. PFDs save lives; wear them!

At the end of the day I would consider this a great trip.  We saw many more manatees than I had expected and Gaetane got some valuable paddle time on unfamiliar water, thus increasing her skills.  Is she ready for rougher water?  Personally, I don’t think so.  I do believe that she is ready to take on more trips, each one increasing her skill and confidence.

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