Saturday, January 1, 2011

Leapin' Manatees!

We docked Thursday morning in Tarpon Springs, population 23,000--a significant number of whom are Greek-Americans.

Back at the turn of the 20th century, an entrepreneur recruited sponge divers from Greece to established a commercial "fishery" for sponges--sedentary ocean animals whose dried skeletons (before the invention of cellulose sponges) came in handy for mopping up spills.  (Fun sponge facts HERE).

We tied up at the Tarpon City Marina, ably assisted by the dockmaster, Ted, who looked like central casting's ideal of a Greek fisherman (though he was quick to tell us he's actually from Poland.)

For dinner on Thursday night we savored grilled octopus and retsina at a local restaurant. Friday morning we set the rowing frame into the dinghy and set out in search of the slow-moving marine mammals we consider a perfect mascot for our boat: manatees.

Tarpon Springs is on the Anclote River, and a side channel, Spring Bayou, is a well known wintering spot for these potato-shaped and Smart-Car sized critters.  (Read many many fun manatee facts here.) Florida's manatees were upgraded from "endangered" to merely "vulnerable" in 2007  but they're still protected. So, no motorized boats allowed in the bay where they hang out. In fact, when we visited, a policeman on shore was quick to chew out a young couple in a fishing boat trying to use their trolling motor to nose into the bay.

Leaping manatee!  Sorry, this is about
as exciting as it gets . . . 
But rowboats are fine.  Now, "Spring Bayou"--sounds like a romantic, wild little spot, fringed with mangroves, doesn't it? Actually it's a basin edged by a cement wall and surrounded by vacation homes, roads, and a little museum. Fisherman were out in force, casting for mullet which were leaping all around like Asian carp.

The manatees were leaping too--at least, they were doing what passes for a leap if you're a manatee.

You've probably seen dolphins leap, at least in the movies or at an aquarium--they nose up out of the water, then dive back down, back arched in a tight gray loop, down, down, down into the water. Manatees make the same move, except you see a dull brown back lift about one inch out of the water and roll down . . . and down . . . and down . . . in super-duper-slo-mo.

Here's a manatee sticking its nose up to take a breath.
Manatees had a tough year.  (Click THIS LINK for more details). They can't handle persistent temps that go below 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and this past year the water's been colder than normal. At Spring Bayou we spotted three different manatees simultaneously--which seemed like a lot to us for a space perhaps 100 yards across.  But that was small potatoes compared to Tampa, where the local paper reported a herd of 300 enjoying the warm waters at the outlet of Tampa Electric's Big Bend Power Station.

If you'd like to see manatees in (sort of) action, Florida has several live "manatee cams" focused on various manatee hotspots.  Manatees usually come up to breathe  every 3 to 5 minutes, but they CAN stay under as long as 20 minutes . . . so you may have to wait awhile to spot one.

Fun fact about the live manatee cam on Three Sister Springs:  It's operated by solar power!


  1. Cynthia, Happy New Year. I'm fascinated by your canalboat journey, being a lover of canals. I've only been on a packet boat once, on the C&O Canal at Great Falls on the Potomac River(near Washington, DC). My husband and I spend this early part of January in SW Florida at Sanibel Island, and we are well aware of the effects of cold on the sea creatures in the Gulf of Mexico and Estero Bay. Last year the Sanibel conservation foundation rescued many many sea turtles and saw countless dead fish in Estero Bay - you might well be passing through this bay on your journey. Sanibel and Captiva have facilities that you may find handy on your voyage. All the best on the rest of your journey.

    Rachel Stewart, Arlington, VA

  2. Gee, I always get the name of the body of water wrong. Estero Bay is at Fort Myers Beach. Pine Island Sound - between the mainland and Captiva/Sanibel Islands - is what I meant.

  3. CB -

    Happy New Year to you and Captain Bill!


  4. Hi Cynthia & Bill,
    Happy New Year! Hope your travels around Florida are warm this winter. Thanks for all the info on Manatees. They have always been a favorite of mine and now I know more about them. Loved the pictures of the Dolphins. We are having a heat wave (50 today), but turning much colder next week. Love to you both,