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MANATEE MAMBO

The temperature is less than thirty degrees. It is the middle of January. Here I am on a pontoon boat wearing a wetsuit and shivering in the cold. Once again I have let my husband talk me into another wild adventure. It is not that I am an unwilling participant, so much as I am an insane participant. The crazier the better!

"Let's go swimming with the manatees in Florida in January. It is the perfect time to see the manatees and we will be craving a break from our frigid Midwest winter, it will be warm," is how my husband Gary conned me into it. What I actually heard was "blah, blah, blah, blah, Florida, and warm." Of course I said yes.

We were lucky to get a flight out. The day and a half before we left, we got over a foot of snow. As Chicagoland was digging out, the blizzard moved to Boston and New England, they got over two feet of snow and their airports totally closed due to the weather. I breathed a sigh of relief when we landed and then thought those poor suckers stuck in the cold and snow. Little did I know, the cold north wind followed us right down from Boston's blizzard.

Floridians everywhere were bundled up like Nanook of the North. Here I was ready to fling off my ten layers of shell, jacket, liner, vest and polar tech fleece. No such luck, I zipped back up all my layers and put my gloves back on my hands. "Don't worry" I was told. "By the time we go swimming with the Manatees it will warm up, besides you'll be wearing your wetsuit that always keeps you warm." Famous last words.

The day before our trip we stopped by the place running the tour. We were informed don't worry this is ideal weather for swimming with the manatees. There will be many of them to see. The river is a natural spring that bubbles out of the ground at a balmy seventy-two degrees. This is why the manatees come here in winter. They want to be warm too. We were also told we have a heater, hot chocolate and a changing room for dry clothes after the swim, you'll be fine. Once again, famous last words.

I took my seasick pills, (did I mention I get deathly sea sick? Even in a canoe on a lake as flat and calm as glass!) I put on all and I do mean all of my wetsuits, starting with my shorty, my polar tech fleece skin suit and my 3mm wetsuit. Add a hood, gloves and boots. And there I was shivering and shaking my way down the river, praying that I would die from cold instead of vomiting over the side of the pontoon.

The manatee is a very interesting creature. They can live to be between fifty to seventy years old. They are mammals and although they are often referred to as sea cows they are not related to your favorite black and white dairy cow. Instead the manatees are related to the elephant. They have nose flaps that close shut and they are able to stay under water for about fifteen to twenty minutes at a time. They are strictly vegetarians and can be in fresh or salt water. They have no natural enemies other than mankind. As the manatee evolved their pelvic girdle became vestigial and only serves as a place for some muscle and ligature attachments. They developed a strong fluke (tail) instead of legs. In the female her nipples are found under her two front pectoral fins but there is no storage capacity and the young must nurse often to get small amounts of milk. The manatees sleep underwater for about fifteen minutes and then surface for air and go back down all while still asleep.

The manatee range was once from the Arctic to the Amazon. The Arctic Manatee is now extinct. Every year the manatee population suffers a loss of twenty percent due to accidents with the propellers of boats. Many manatees have scarred and lined backs from their encounters with boats. The species is protected and endangered. In Florida's waterways there are roped off and buoyed areas where manatees only can go. It is their safe haven. There are also no wake zones and idle only areas for boats in the rivers and waters where manatees are known to go for warmth.

These are easy and gentle creatures. Their brain structure is interesting. They do not have the many folds or fissures normally associated with a mammalian brain, they have more smooth areas. Some scientists postulate this means they have limited intellectual abilities. Their eyes can only see forward and they can not turn their heads from side to side. They have no peripheral or up vision and the experts believe this greatly contributes to all the propeller accidents the manatees have with boats.

The boat captain was finished educating us on these gentle giants. We were now anchored and ready to slide into the water. I sat on the edge of the back of the boat, teeth clattering, body shivering and into the water I slipped. After the first minute I warmed up to the seventy two-degree temperature of the water vs. the thirty-degree temperature of the air. Okay, now we were getting somewhere I was warming up to the whole experience.

We floated a short way and low and behold here came a manatee to meet us. The manatees loved to be scratched on their backs, heads, and chests and between their flippers. Soon the manatee was upon us. Holy @#0@#*&*% Batman, this big beast up close and personal was huge. She had to weigh at least a ton. And I'm gonna let her near me? Not on your life, I'm not!

I floated motionlessly there, praying I was not spotted and praying if I was that the tackle of death would be brief and only one big slam of pain and then blessed unconsciousness down to Davy Jones' locker. Neither happened. She slid up to me in perfect grace and I waggled my fingers at her. Soon her neck and broad back was under my hand as I scratched away. Wow! This is amazing I thought to myself as she glided on past to greet the next person.

As we continued to float along and meet and greet, I would take my fingertips and gently scratched where the manatee of the moment would direct. But often the manatee would see another person and leave to go see the next person.

It dawned on me then, this is just another creature interacting with a human. I did what I would do with any puppy in my training class. I stayed very still and floated calmly. I used my normal hand signal of taking my palm up to my chest and soon the manatees where coming to me with a recall better than some of my dogs on occasion.

Now how do I teach a sit or down stay, (which would be what a 'float stay'?) to this large mammal in water? The limited eyesight of the manatee and my reluctance to use flaying hand signals in the water were an obstacle to be over come. Plus it was not like I had a big head of cabbage or a bunch of seaweed to use as a reward or bribe or lure like I would use a tasty liver treat in puppy class. What reward would the manatee want that I could offer?

I saw that being scratched was a pleasurable thing for them but it was not enough for them to stay with one person for any length of time. The next time one came I tried using T-Touch®. I used gentle clockwise motions starting at the neck. Voila! The manatee relaxed right into my hand. I continued the T-Touch®. I spent fifteen minutes from anterior to posterior on one of them. When I got to the end of the fluke, the manatee came right back for me to start on the neck and work my way down to the fluke again.

Soon I was attracting a crowd of humans and I floated away to give the manatee less stress from too many people. No sooner was I away than a very young manatee come right up to me, the young manatee's hide is very, very bumpy whereas the older ones have a smooth skin much like a whale or dolphin. I started the T-Touch® again. Just bumpy baby and me. The young one leaned into me and relaxed. We looked into each other's eyes and I knew in that moment there was a very sentient being with me. I don't know if the scientists are right about the brains of these animals, because I saw intelligence and a soul of deep magnitude in those eyes.

I wish I was a better swimmer and diver because while Bumpy (okay I admit it, I named the manatee) and I were bonding, I could not match Bumpy's graceful move for graceful move. What I could do was continue the T-Touch®. I could not do what I normally do with a dog and run my hand down the spine looking for hot spots, while using my other hand to do the circles of the T-Touch®. It is against the law to have two hands on a manatee at one time. This did not matter I realized. I had a great reward for the behavior of coming to me and I had a great recall all in a matter of an hour. Who knew dog training for manatees!

Bumpy and I continued our floating ballet. Bumpy would swim to me and either give me his back or his belly. I would start either under the chin or behind the head and do clockwise circles all the way down to the end of his fluke. After awhile I realized I had been in the water for over an hour and a half and I was shivering and freezing. Even with all my wetsuits and the seventy two-degree temperature of the water I was still losing body heat from my core. It was time to get out and get warm.

Natural Expressions Premium PetfoodI began to swim back to the boat. Bumpy accompanied me the whole way back. When I looked up into the boat I saw I was one of the remaining few people still in the water. I gave Bumpy a final T-Touch® and pat with a scratch and climbed the ladder to get aboard. I was sad to leave my new friend. Bumpy didn't want to leave either. He hovered around the pontoon and then found the anchor line and decided he would munch on it for awhile to see if I might change my mind and come back in the water.

Once out of the water I realized how cold it could be in a sopping wet wetsuit and a below freezing temperature outside. I swear my shaking was so violent that I made the pontoon boat rock and create waves. This is when I found out the heater in the boat was nothing but having clear vinyl sides zippered down and a bunch of humans breathing inside making steam count as a heater.

I also found out the changing room was nothing but a big piece of opaque vinyl wrapped around you head to toe. Have you ever tried to get out of a wetsuit? Even in the best of circumstances getting out of a wetsuit can be a bit of a challenge. Try getting out of three of them when you have no control over your motor skills while wrapped up in a big piece of stiff plastic. Talk about doing the twist with gusto, this was like an adventuresome game of twister, wet, wild and half-naked! Do I need to tell you everyone on that boat watched me roll and twist, rumba and rock around the clock inside the "changing room". They were all hooting and howling with laughter, which I could hear quite clearly. Finally I shouted out, "Hey, she can hear every word you guys are saying about me and I am not laughing." This made them laugh even harder and much, much more.

After wrestling around for at least 20 minutes trying to get changed I emerged red faced and embarrassed to more howls of laughter. People can be so cruel! I sat down and comforted myself with the fact that Bumpy was still waiting for me to come back in the water to play. Yes the intelligence of the manatees was increasing exponentially as far as I was concerned that's for sure! At least Bumpy liked me.

I was too cold to go back in that morning and the boat idled off back to the dock. I kept replaying in my mind what I did and the response I got from the manatees. It was all I could think about. I formulated my plan of action for the next day because oh yes, fool that I am I was going back to do it all again.

The morning dawned cold and clear once again. The temperature was close to fifteen degrees warmer than the morning before. It still was not quite forty degrees out but, there was no hard frost and it was not below freezing. Yea! Off we went on the pontoon boat once again. At least this time I knew what to expect. Once again, famous last words. Will I never learn? Nope I don't think I ever will!

I had it all planned out. I was going to float as still as possible and wait for one of the gentle creatures to approach me. Then I was going to start with the T-Touch® when one of the manatees came to me and see if I could control my buoyancy and float effortlessly while I traced my circles down the back of the manatee.

We were all swimming towards a safe haven area of the manatees this morning at the main spring area. I was about thirty yards back of the boat captain. She stopped and called back to us that there was a sleeping manatee and do not disturb him on the bottom as we swim past. I was lazily stroking and alternately floating hanging back from the main crowd of people on purpose. When all of sudden wham, bam, boom, I was smashed in the gut and thrown up and out of the water. The still sleeping manatee chose that moment to surface for air and came up under me. He collided with me and I was no match for him. Three thousand pounds versus less than one hundred pounds soaking wet I might add! Talk about a rude awakening. I don't know which one of us was more surprised. The manatee sunk back to the bottom easily falling back asleep. I began counting teeth and checking limbs. "What are you doing back there?" my husband Gary asked me over his shoulder. "Oh nothing." I replied. "You know just getting thrust out of the water by a couple ton animal nothing unusual for me." Gary swam off shaking his head. I floated there while I continued my count, got all my teeth, check, now let's see how many toes are still left attached to my feet.

Other than my sleeping basher buddy, all the manatees were sleeping behind the roped off area. The crowd was swimming in a pacing pattern all along the lines hoping one would wake up and venture out. I just floated along staying away from the crowd and watching directly underneath me so I could avoid any further surprises.

After about an hour a couple manatees came out to play. I still hung back waiting. The people from the boat were mobbing these few creatures and they kept darting back to their safe haven. Soon a brave soul came out to meet and greet with me. I just floated there all by myself. This big gal was soon upon me. I ventured out my hand and began a gentle circle pattern behind her head. She gracefully rolled over and gave me her chest. I began in earnest to do the "Clouded Leopard" and progressed through to the stronger "Leopard Touch". This manatee loved it.

This gal's flipper suddenly grabbed me. She took my hand and clamped on and began swimming away with me. I thought what a hoot; she likes me and what I am doing. Then I looked around instead of focusing my attention on where I was massaging her. Oh no she was taking me right into the safe haven zone. The manatee police were out in force and if I even wandered in there by accident it was a ten thousand-dollar fine. I could just see me explaining to the judge, "but your Honor I was kidnapped!"

I tried to pull my hand away and kick out and away with my fins all to no avail. Oh boy! I am in trouble now I thought. She would not let go of me. Until genius that I am it occurred to me to stop doing the T-Touch®. Soon she realized I was not doing it and her grip on me loosened enough for me to slip back under the rope and make my get away before I got thrown in the slammer.

The boat captain came over to me shortly after my kidnapping and said she was thinking of getting everyone back in the boat and going to another spot because all the manatees were in the safe zone. I couldn't bring myself to tell her I was just in the safe zone and a bunch of them were in there and hopefully they would all come out soon. Maybe one of their friends would tell them these humans were worthwhile and they should go check them out. I floated off and far away from the safe zone.

Natural Expressions Premium PetfoodPretty soon everyone got very excited because the manatees were coming out in full force. I swam farther away and stayed all by myself. Soon I had three of them all around me. The smallest of them maybe only twenty-five hundred pounds instead of three thousand swam right up to my mask and put his face right on it. We gazed with rapt attention into one another's eyes. I could just feel the presence of this being in my mind and in my soul. It was like he was asking are you the one? Yes I said back from my soul to his. He took his flipper and gently touched my shoulder. Okay I said no need to grab on and drag me back, just float here with me and I will massage you.

I began to run my hand down from under his chin in slow circles using just the right amount of pressure. I saw his eyes smile with delight and roll back. I worked the circles larger and slowly going where the manatee would gracefully adjust his buoyancy and his body to where he wanted my hand to be. Soon the other two were nudging and nuzzling me too. I had my other hand working the back and side of his friend, while the third was trying to see if one of my feet could possibly offer this special touch.

I stopped thinking and began just being. My hands moved independent of my mind. I had no thought, I had only the three of us together gliding in the water, undulating with the current and flowing along in harmony. We were. There was nothing else but us and the moment and the moment was forever.

I can not describe the joy and contentment. I know all three of us felt it. We were not two different species. We were not aware of anything except the peace and acceptance of each other. Our souls met and blended and understood. I was given such a gift from the manatees. They shared their intimate souls completely with me. I was grateful and thankful and blessed.

Three other people swam over and broke us up. They began scratching the manatees. I just floated off and they purposefully swam away back to their safe haven. I could not understand a word spoken to me by these people from my boat. The spoken language left me. I had no words neither in my mind nor in my voice. An eternity later Gary swam up to me. "How are you doing?" He asked. I realized I was entranced by the whole experience. I also realized I had been in the water for over two hours and I was very, very cold. I knew the experience I just had would not be repeated and it was time for me to swim back to the boat.

I swam with purpose toward the pontoon boat. I was hoping the movement on my part would help warm me back up. No such luck. By the time I climbed aboard I was shaking so hard I thought I would make the boat turn over and create a big tidal wave. I shivered my way over to the changing tarp and wrapped it around me. First I got stuck getting out of my wetsuit. Ever have your arms stuck in a straight jacket? Well there I was with my arms and my feet stuck in three layers of wetsuits as I went tumbling around the tarp trying to free them.

I finally broke free of all the wetsuits. I forgot my towel so here I am in a plastic tarp dripping water completely nude and I can't get my clothes back on. I was so wet and shaking so much I managed to pull my long johns on just past my eyes and then get them stuck on my head. My feet and my ankles were stuck inside them too and convoluted around my shins. I fell over sideways and almost through the clear vinyl window off the side of the boat. So here I hang half in, half out of the boat, my hands, feet and eyes are covered and the entire rest of me is naked for the whole world to see except for the "changing room" wrapped around me that I am trapped inside of. Let's just say some unprintable expletives were heard from my lips!

I put on a great show. When I finally emerged somewhat dressed (I managed to put my shirt on inside out and backwards, at least it was on!) Not only was everyone laughing, they applauded. I was not amused in the least. I have been mortified on numerous occasions in my life, but this most embarrassing moment skyrocketed to the top of my list.

Ten minutes later Gary gets back on the boat and wants to know why everyone is laughing and staring at me. I give him the infamous Italian Mal Ochio ('evil eye') and say "Don't ask." He knew enough to say no more. Then the rotten man wraps himself up in that troublesome piece of canvas changing room and in five minutes comes out perfectly attired. This time I was doing the proverbial look to kill and thankfully he did not look at me or he would have been dead or I would have thrown him over the side of the boat! Which ever came first would have been fine with me.

Our manatee adventure was at a close. We were back on the dock, the sun was shining and the temperature was heading towards sixty degrees. Ah that warmth Gary had mentioned so long ago when he convinced me to do this. I stood there in the Florida sun and took in a few slow deep breaths. And then a few tears escaped and leaked down my face. I was awed and humbled. What an amazing planet we live upon. What fascinating and loving creatures we share it with. I was enriched and I was blessed to have spent some time together with my new friends and to do our very special dance together the Manatee Mambo!

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