Swimming with Sea Gordons: the Manatees

When we visited Victoria this past September, we had already purchased our motorhome and were counting down the days until we could get on the road full-time. We had planned the trip to Victoria months earlier to bury Jeremiah’s grandparents on an Island called Gabriola, a place I unexpectedly fell in love with. We left the tiny island and headed to Victoria BC. The first day we arrived there, we walked miles and our feet were sore and our bellies hungry. Jeremiah’s Aunt Margee and Uncle Jeff were still in the area as well, so we met up with them. Jeremiah and I were on cloud nine then, and Margee and Jeff were equally excited for us and gave us ideas and places we had to visit. Experiencing new places, like Victoria, was the exact reason we had purchased the HOW and the reason we were intending to live in it full time.

The beginning of a mission

That night, while we had the worst service at a fine dining restaurant in recent memory, we chatted with Margee and Jeff, and they told us the time that the had swam with the manatees in Florida just a year or so prior. It was already something on our bucket list, but after that conversation, we were sold. From then on, Jeremiah’s entire reason for getting down to Florida was to swim with the sea cows.

Our land manatee: Gordon

When we arrived home from Victoria a couple days later, Jeremiah cuddled Gordon, our 10 year old puppy with eyes the size of silver dollars. Gordon stepped onto the bed, and put his front paws on Jeremiah’s chest before lying down between us. A simple, sweet creature. Jeremiah always said that if Gordon could drive, his license plate would have been LUV2CUDDL. “I can’t wait to swim with the sea Gordons!” He told our pup.

Two weeks later, we were devastated with the death of Gordon, our best friend. Not a day passes that we don’t grieve the fluffy-faced stumpy-legged dog, and I find myself searching for him in the wind in the trees. It’s incredible how I can still see him when we walk Bernadette, or when we stop to sit at a picnic table. His happy-go-lucky image is burned in my memories more than any human. Recently, when we spotted two alligators in the lake, I laughed because I imagined that if Gordon had been with us, he would not have been so patient as Bernadette to sit and watch, and would have given one bark towards the alligators. He was not a smart dog, but he was the most loved dog in the world.

An unforgettable beginning

When we finally booked our tour to swim with the manatees last week, Jeremiah announced, “We’re finally going to swim with the Sea Gordons!”

And, we did. 

When we got on our manatee-adventure boat, we were the only two besides the tour guide and the captain. Within 3 minutes, before we had expected to jump in, Hunter, our captain, spotted two. A baby and her mom. 

“Well, that was fast!” He said. 

We jumped in, and the cold water felt like I had made a huge mistake. 

“It’ll be cold for a couple minutes but you’ll warm right up,” Our tour guide, Shania had told us before we jumped in. 

I felt panicky having had a poor experience with scuba diving several years prior. I had not felt totally at home in the water since then, but I put my face into the water and breathed heavily through the snorkel as I waited for the water to feel warmer. Within a minute, the water was no longer shocking, and we were at the side of the large manatee within moments. Jeremiah reached out and grabbed my hand to pull me closer to the gentle giant.

We floated beside her, later finding out her name was Zipper, our arms and legs motionless.  About every five minutes a manatee must take a breath at the surface of the water, and so we waited for her to rise up. When she did, she paused and put one eye up to Jeremiah’s face. She then moved her head, and  still inches away from his face, she looked at him with her other eye.

“You can touch her with one hand,” Shania said. “She’s letting you know it’s okay.”

We each put out a hand and pet her mossy side, and watched her as she waited. Her enormous size was breathtaking. I realized after she had dipped down a bit that I was holding my breath, and I heard myself laughing through the snorkel as she disappeared. 

Later, Jeremiah told me had seen the fingernails on her front flippers. Manatees closest relative is the elephant, having lived on land millions of years ago before transitioning to full time aquatic life. Evidence of this remains by things like hip bones and fingernails. 

Manatees can hear your heartbeat

When we got back on the boat, our captain said something that put a lump in my throat. “I’ve had  people come out and do this three or four times hoping for an experience like that. You got in the first five minutes. I’m not sure how we’re going to top that.” Jeremiah and I smiled at each other.

“It’s just like dogs,” I said to him. 

“Dogs just like me,” Jeremiah explained to the tiny crew. 

“Manatees can sense a heartbeat fifty feet away in the water,” the captain replied.  “They’re a little like dogs – they just sense when a person doesn’t mean them harm.”

We spent the next two hours floating next to these beautiful giants.  At one point, a baby about two-years-old was making a high pitched cry in the water looking for his mother. Manatees allow their young to stray fairly far from them, and then find them in the large expanse later on. The baby, amidst her crying, came up to check me out. I could feel my snorkel slip between my lips as I smiled. She put her face close to me, and I reached out, petting her smaller body. 

Little Manatee

I say smaller, but she was close to something like 800 lbs. It’s all perspective.

One last dip

At the very end, we were making our way to the dock, where our van was waiting. We were slightly over the time allotted for us, so we were so glad that we had booked the tour we did. It was twenty bucks more expensive than a 12-person group, but we had ended up being the only passengers meaning we had more leeway in our adventure.

There was a large female in the water, which was shallow enough we could stand up most of the time, although I was on my tip toes. (I’m shaped like a teapot. Short and stout.)

We both thought we were finished, so when they said, “Okay, one more,” we scurried to jump in to the water to spend time with the manatee.

“She’s huge!” Shania said when we got to her. A moment passed with the three of us floating, watching the enormous gentle beast munching on Easter grass.

“She’s pregnant,” Shania said, with a slight whisper to her voice. I could sense the excitement that she was feeling, and recognized that these creatures are so much more to these tour guides than they were for me. They know them in a different way than I could ever expect to know them with my limited research and experience.

“Listen, you can hear her eating.” We put our ears beneath the water as we watched her through goggle-covered eyes.

When we were 15 minutes past our allotted time, we headed back to the boat, our hearts full of Sea Gordon love.  Some of our bucket list items are ones we have checked off our list, knowing we’d never want to do them again. Others, like swimming with manatees, left us wanting more. I can promise you there will be another blog down the road when we visit again to check on our new friends. We don’t expect to top this experience though. After all, some people come back 3 or 4 times for an experience like we had in the first five minutes. 

Tips: Legally the only area in the USA that you can swim with manatees is Citrus County, Florida. We used Fun2Dive and would highly recommend them, but there are multiple other manatee swimming options as well. Please, go do it. It’s so so wonderful.

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