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Saturday, November 24, 2018

Mantaees! Thanksgiving Day Treat

The same Thanksgiving day I about sh-- in my pants (and thanks to startling a 'gator, it looked like the whole river did just that on me and my kayak) was also the same day I got to enjoy watching some of the gentlest of large estuary critters -- manatees.  

Famed fictional captain Moby Dick was not enamored with them, sardonically quipping "...these pig-fish are a noisy, contemptible set, mostly lurking in the mouths of rivers, and feeding on wet hay, and especially as they do not spout, I deny their credentials as whales; and have presented them with their passports to quit the Kingdom of Cetology." 

Indeed, the captain is correct on manatees origin. He may have been a bit loopy, but not as loopy as sailors who mistook them for mermaids! Maybe it had just been way too long without female companionship.

Manatee's closest living land relative is the elephant.  Like elephants, manatees are mostly vegetarian.  Watching them eat, it's easy to understand why they're nicknamed "sea cows."  Per wikepedia, "Manatees are three of the four living species in the order Sirenia. The fourth is the Eastern Hemisphere's dugong [which I had the pleasure of seeing in Vanuatu]. The Sirenia are thought to have evolved from four-legged land mammals more than 60 million years ago."

manatees palm bay florida goode park
This manatee couple looked like they were cuddling. Goode Park, Palm Bay, Thanksgiving 2018.
Today, while we're lucky enough to see manatees with ease in Florida, they are endangered species.  Florida enacted protections for them from hunters as early as the mid 1800s. Today, propellers and red tides threaten their survival.  Those that do survive may live as long as 60 years. Fully grown, they reach 800-1200 pounds.  

If you're looking for them, you might first hear them grabbing a deep breath of air when they surface -- which you can hear in this audio, along with a variety of other sounds they make -- including farting (also on the audio)! When awake, they come up about every 3 minutes, though when they sleep, they wake up every 20 minutes to come up for air.

They're gentle, curious and usually slow moving, though they can swim in short bursts at speeds of over 20 miles per hour. They seem so friendly, it's hard to resist wanting to give them an affectionate pat.  I'd love to swim with manatees, but not when they're hanging out in alligator country.

Danny of Paradise Paddling approaching Turkey Creek Sanctuary Palm Bay
Danny of Paradise Paddling leading the way on Turkey Creek for the sunset paddle where I first encountered manatees.
The nice folks at Paddling Paradise at Turkey Creek, Palm Bay treated a group of us to my first time seeing manatees from my kayak.  We watched several of them grazing contentedly right next to us. We left before the manatees did because we needed return while there was still enough light.

If you'd like to learn more about manatees here's a few longer videos, shot in much clearer water.
Where You Can Swim with Manatees (3 minutes)
The Truth About Manatees (7 1/2 minutes)

If you're really intrigued, you can even adopt a manatee (virtually), and increase the likelihood future generations can enjoy them as much as we do.

Meanwhile -- this Thanksgiving it was an alligator and manatees. Two years ago ago I saw pink dolphins for Thanksgiving.  What's next? 



Thursday, November 22, 2018

Gator Sploosh! Thanksgiving.

scary looking american alligator
Clément Bardot [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
What would you do on a 76-degree Thanksgiving day with on one to hang out with?

Wayne and I enjoyed putting together turkey and the trimmings the day before, as he was working Thanksgiving Day.

So I packed up my trusty little inflatable kayak into my Prius and popped off to nearby Turkey Creek (see www.KayakGuide.com description for more about paddling there). After all -- I was still celebrating,  where better to paddle on Thanksgiving that a place called Turkey Creek?  Just a few miles from where I live with lots of public access boat ramps and docks,  the paddling at Turkey Creek is easy, calm waters meandering through cattails and mangroves and alongside waterfront homes.  The area is lushly beautiful, with abundant wildlife ... ospreys, herons, egrets, kingfishers, turtles, and manatees.

Paddling Turkey Creek a few days earlier with Paddling Paradise.
Kayaking the area with the Paddling Paradise group a few days before, my camera battery died just as three grazing manatees decided they were perfectly happy to hang out with us until we needed to push off before the sun set. This time I came prepared with a fully charged camera, seeking more friendly manatees.

I've been told there were also alligators. I hadn't seen the 'gators, though believed they were there.

Up until this point, the only 'gator I saw kayaking was on with a Meetup group of kayakers about a month ago, on a river about a 40 minute drive South.  He (or she) was just a little guy, maybe 4-5 feet.  The only sign of his presence were eyes just cresting the inlet's surface. A fellow kayaker paddled straight towards him and the gator quickly dived. I was disappointed -- wishing for a better chance to observe it, quietly and from a respectful distance.

Saw this alligator  a few weeks ago walking the Viera wetlands and was happy to keep my distance
and let my telephoto "get close."
Much as I enjoy solitude in nature, whether hiking or kayaking, when I'm alone, I deliberately try to pick places and times where I believe others are around, in case of emergency.  Given that, I was a little concerned that I was unlikely to find other kayakers out and about around prime Thanksgiving feasting time.  There was one truck with a boat trailer, no one fishing or kayaking.  I paddled across the lagoon to another set docks, Goode Park, where a family gazed out over the water.  They told me that it was a great place to spot manatees.

I paddled back toward my starting point to find my way between some low-lying islands that I thought led to the same route I'd paddled earlier in the week.  I came into a dead-end and realized it wasn't the same spot. I turned around, retracing my steps....

Then, suddenly there was a massive SPLASH! So much so that a wave of murky water nailed me from the head down, coating the top deck of my kayak splooshing a quart or so of water into my kayak.  Sharp concentric rings rose a few inches up on the water's surface, fanning out in front of me -- a sure sign something BIG passed me.

Even though I didn't see it, from the sound, the location and the force of the water, I'm pretty darned sure that something big was an alligator, and suspect it was as startled as I was. While alligators have been known to attack and even kill humans, reports of alligator attacks of kayakers are pretty rare (though here is a recent one in Florida). Usually it's waders, swimmers, snorkelers and shore side walkers (fatalities seem a bit more likely if dog-walking, as in this recent incident) who are attacked.

I'm almost positive what I encountered was not a manatee, the only other aquatic local in that size range.  But manatee movement is slow and languorous. What I experienced was a hard, fast smack on the water and a sense of a critter that felt at least as large or larger than a manatee.

I'd been told it was best to avoid the banks as that's where the gators hung out. The spot where I was startled was fairly close to a cattail-fringed bank. I felt foolish that I'd not paid more attention.  Here's a good post that spells out a little better how to avoid gator encounters.

I also felt very lucky and thankful that the gator wasn't interested in punishing me for my momentary lapse.

Feeling the urgent need to be near people, I paddled back to the manatee watchers, who'd gotten their wish.

"What happened to you?" one of them asked, noticing that I was speckled with muck.  I explained.

Then I tied off my kayak, pulled out my camera and took in the show.  Eventually, the manatees moved on.

I pulled my kayak up on the dock, rolled it over to get most of the water out of it. Still the lone kayaker, I decided a short paddle back to the dock where I started from was good enough for the day.  I was happy not to spend my Thanksgiving offering myself as a Turkey Creek feast to one of the locals.

File:American Alligator eating crab.JPG
Gareth Rasberry [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
"You should tell others about what happened," my friend Nancy urged. when I told her about my close encounter.  And so I am.

"Does this mean you're done kayaking there?" Wayne asked, when I told him about my adventure.

West Marine Scamper I inflatable kayak.
My kayak, set out to finish drying after its close encounter a 'gator in Turkey Creek.
It's so easy to transport in my little car, I kinda hate to replace it with a hard plastic kayak. 
"No," I replied, but added "I will exercise more caution and may not go out paddling if I'm the only one around."  A non-inflatable kayak is also a consideration (though toting it via my Prius would be challenging)....

While the odds of being attacked by 'gators are low, I believe avoiding alligators is the best plan. I'm not ready to give up kayaking, though I plan to be much more cautious about exactly when and where I go.  While hope you or I never need them, here's a few tips on what to do if encountering a less laissez-faire 'gator than the one the skirted me this Thanksgiving.

On a brighter note -- my next post will show photos and video of the manatees.

And I hope your Thanksgiving was every bit as memorable... though for other reasons!  Be careful out there!