Swimming with Florida’s manatee (dugong)

It’s satisfying ticking off a bucket list item: swimming with manatee – tick.

With two Florida locals, and three from Mexico, I cruise some Florida canals looking for a 600-kg creature (1322.77 lb). Sirenia are large marine herbivores and are also called sea cows, manatee, dugong and for sailors, mermaids.  It’s not the right season, but a few are permanent residents. We are looking for a fat needle in a large, watery haystack.

The canals are beautiful with expensive real estate and living at the water’s edge are a few ordinary working folks among the rich and famous including John Travolta who has a holiday home here.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge looks after this part of Kings Bay and many locals object to their speed, and other, restrictions. DJ, our young Captain, calls out to a young guy in a hire boat to slow down, to obey the speed limit – he did, but maybe just until we were out of sight.

Manatees, which lack blubber which allows whales tolerate the cold, have a near-perfect winter refuge here as many of the springs produce large quantities of warm (22 c) water.  We’re told that the locals in this de-facto manatee capital of the USA can, from November to March, walk out their doors and see dozens of them swimming or sleeping in the canals.

We pass a boat, with its passengers in the water watching this relative of elephants, but DJ moves on and later, just when I decide my bucket list will not be ticked today, we find a manatee floating on the water like a great grey blimp beside a private jetty.

I’m so excited. The only other manatee I’d seen was in a Disney park many years ago – wildlife in the wild is always different!

“She’s due to pop” our skipper says. It seems no-one has ever seen a birth and a local university has offered $US10, 000 for a video of the event. I immediately check my camera’s video setting, wriggle into a wet suit, then with mask and snorkel on, slip off the back of the boat.

For some reason the water’s very dark at this time of the year which suits the manatee as they can sink and be out of sight quickly.

Keeping well back from this pregnant cow I’m thrilled to be in the water with her. We’d learnt they needed warmth from the sun and her back was out of the water catching sun rays.

Although only a few feet away, the murky water made her hard to see clearly. I just float and admire her while sending mental ‘I love you’, and ‘we won’t hurt you’ messages. We stay in the water for about ten minutes and she’s motionless the whole time. As we get back into the boat she glides slowly into the middle of the canal and I miss her lifting her nostrils to breathe before sinking.

Our boat moves away slowly, heading for the Three Sisters Springs where, in season, photos are taken of the manatees resting in the clear, warm water. It was photos such as them that had put the manatee on my to-experience bucket list.

Once again we slide off the back of the boat, swim past two cruise boats moored between us and the entrance to the springs, then past the barrier that stops boats entering. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop canoes and kayaks and I keep to the edge as many of the boats seem to have passengers who have little control over their direction.

The water is much clearer here and I see how easy it would be to watch them underwater: a reminder that bucket lists sometimes need to be time specific.

Touching protected wild animals, as our captain had suggested we could (none of us did) would never be allowed in many countries, and it’s this ‘swim with manatee’ activity that has conservationists, boaters, some residents, politicians and tour operators arguing over the future of the area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversee all wildlife refuge areas and, manage the manatee population too.

In the video shown before we boarded, we were told ‘don’t disturb resting manatees; don’t block them when they are leaving the roped-off areas (where people are forbidden) and don’t touch.’

Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, believes the situation at Crystal River is harassment of the manatees, and is “in direct violation of both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.” He advocates stricter rules including requiring swimmers to “stop a body length away from manatees” so they are free to interact, or not, with people. “The majority of the dive shops are trying to do a good job” Rose says, and “If they want to be responsible and protect the privilege they have, which is so unique, then fine. If not, the swim-with program should go.”

Some years ago, in Florida, I’d bought a Wyland (marine artist) print of a manatee and baby and now I’ve seen one – without a baby, so no ten thousand dollars for me.  With its fat, flat, wrinkled face and sensory whiskers, the manatee looks rather like an overweight dolphin or small whale despite not being related to either.

Vulnerable to extinction, the population in this state is under 5000 and it seems that without stronger conservation efforts, these gentle creatures will be consigned to legend status along with the mermaids.

Like New Zealand’s flightless birds, the manatee evolved in an environment with abundant food and no predators.  Now vulnerable, its survival depends on locals and tourists being willing to share its home. If you are travelling in Florida, November is Manatee Awareness month and when you are most likely to see them.

 

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Cruising, snorkeling & walking among the flora and fauna of Fiji

The kiwi travel writer enjoys Fiji
The kiwi travel writer enjoys Fiji

While cruising the Yasawa Islands with Blue Lagoon Cruises (aboard the catamaran Fiji Princess) I find just some of the flora and fauna of Fiji. Tropical forests, rough mountainous terrain, blue Pacific Ocean waters and uninhabited islands (as well as cities and resorts) sums up Fiji: it’s only native mammal are fruit bats and six varieties are found on the islands and although bird watching in the rainforest is a major tourist draw in Fiji I saw very few while cruising there recently.

Walking through the tropical forest (from one side of one of the Yasawa islands) we saw epiphytes, and a few small orchids. Overall, 10 percent of the native plant life is unique to Fiji.

Underwater, Fiji features one of the South Pacific’s largest coral reef systems and we had a marine biologist come aboard to talk about the value of them. Although they can’t sting us, we can do huge damage to them by touching them: the bacteria on our body can be fatal to them  . . . so, don’t touch is the rule!

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Marine biologist Dan

With no eyes or brains, a centralised mouth and digestive system it would never win an award for complex systems – in fact its mouth is also where undigested matter leaves its body!

Labelled as the Soft Coral Capital of the World by Jean-Michel Cousteau, Fiji apparently offers some of the world’s best scuba diving and snorkeling and the crystal waters of their reefs and lagoons often have unmatched visibility.

As someone who feels almost blind without my glasses I would recommend getting your own face mask with prescription glass so you can enjoy the colourful underwater scenery even more than you will.

Fiji Princess had all the water toys we needed …  such as, snorkels, face-mask, canoe, paddle boards, glass bottom boats etc.

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Magical Malaysia – top diving and fishing spots.

The only place I have ever scuba dived was on Pulau Perhentian (off the coast near Kota Bharu) and I was not surprised last night when it was described as having ‘breathtaking beauty and superb underwater attractions”. I’ve stayed on both Besar and Kecil islands and know even snorkelling right off the beach is magical with great corals and fish to see: I’ve even seen a sea snake and turtles as well as experiencing a late monsoon storm which was exhilarating!

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Pulau Besar

 

At the event, for Visit Malaysia 2014, at the Crab Shack on Wellington’s wonderful waterfront was to introduce kiwis to the fishing and diving in Malaysia. I also heard briefly about a Shoe Festival that I need to know more about!

But back to Malaysia’s diverse fishing experiences. (Appears they have lots of fishing comps too)

It seems Malaysia has world-class game (sea) fishing as well as freshwater fishing in both lakes and rivers.  The freshwater catch include things like ‘giant snakehead’ which can be ferocious and fearless, and a catfish which is seems can swallow a monkey for dinner!

The deep-sea fishing includes the Black Marlin which they encourage people to catch and release. There’s also blue marlin, yellow fin tuna, various snappers and trevallies, and one called a Whoo which is reputed to be the fastest fish in the sea.

Sounds like for you fishers that there’s something for you all. As for me I’ll just frequent the fish markets and eat there – try the stalls at Kota Kinabalu where you pick your fish and they’ll cook it for you – yum yum yummy!

Talking about food … the food at the Crab Shack was fabulous too.

Tutukaka: a perfect day at the Poor Knights Islands marine reserve

What a great name to go with the wonderful weather and destination: I’m booked for a day out with A Perfect Day. (And what a great topic for my 1002nd blog post on this site!)

I have taken a tablet for motion sickness but suspect it was not needed – but once you have had a couple of days with your head in a bucket on a yacht you, or rather I, am always cautious!

My Northland road-trip pauses for this day of cruising on the ocean – out to visit the Poor Knights Islands on the east coast of New Zealand’s Northland.  A marine reserve, these islands are  25km (15 miles) off shore and  have been rated by the famous Jacques Cousteau as one of the top-ten dive sites in the world.

The National Geographic magazine (Nov/Dec 2011) after looking at 99 coasts around the world, rates the Tutukaka coast as “top rated” which they say means ‘excellent shape; relatively unspoiled, likely to remain so” – praise indeed and from what I’ve seen, well-justified. (The other NZ coast rated was the Great Barrier Island)

The water is known for its clarity and an abundance of sea life, and with visibility of up to 30 metres underwater divers, and we snorkelers, will be able to see rich and diverse marine life.  I’m looking forward to putting a wetsuit on and checking it out once there. (I really only like the very warm sea water on the equator – so now you know what a baby I am!)

I’ve lost my voice over the past few days and, laughing at the pathetic little voice I have left, one of the staff suggests I may find it in Riko Riko, the world’s largest sea cave – 40% of it is below the water level. This claim has been lodged with the Guinness Book of Records and it’s an amazing 7,900,000 cubic feet with over a hectare of sea surface area inside the cave itself.

But back to the office and jetty where our journey starts:  I love the humour and laconic, laid-back kiwi-style to telling us how to be safe on board and at the islands – it’s this way of delivery that makes me remember it all easily.

The 24k-trip out to the islands at latitude 35.38 S, longitude 174.44 E doesn’t take long, and we’re soon helping zip up each other’s wet suits as we watch a huge floating island of gulls off the top end of the main island we’re moored at.

I slip into the water off the back of the boat and I’m soon enveloped in a school of fish who just part as they go past me. As this is a marine reserve they have no fear of people nor do they expect food from us – we are just another non-threatening creature in their salty environment. I love the sting ray that glide past … all the fish trapping their prey against the underwater cliff for easy catching.

When I’m back on board I name the fish I’ve seen in the various books they have in the library: terakihi; blue maomao; goat-fish; and trevally with their beautiful  yellow tail and markings – to name just a  few.  It’s not long before I head back into the water, just floating on the surface, watching my nature show.

On land (no-one can land on the islands) the Buller’s Shearwaters burrow in the side of the slopes to create their nests, and around the corner the beautiful, Cleopatra-eyed gannets are raising their young.

This has been a perfect day with perfect weather and for me, perfect snorkelling, while others used kayaks and as always on days such as this, it all goes too quickly – just another place to add to my I-must-go-back-to list.

It seems Captain Cook did not explain his choice of name for the island but we hear an interesting possible account involving a popular pudding!  We also hear some history of Maori occupation of the islands and information about the islands flora and fauna.

And no, I didn’t find my voice in the cave – and once back on land I return to my rental car and head for my next stop on this Northland road trip – maybe my voice is further north!

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Northland provides a fabulous day and trip… a perfect day!

When I look in the mirror I forget I’m a red-head – after all, the face looking back at me has short white hair on top of it: so yet again I’m burnt by New Zealand’s harsh sun Sad smile

Nevertheless, its been a great day out to the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve .. you could almost call it a Perfect day, and in fact, that’s exactly what they do call it – A Perfect Day (@poorknights)

Today my blog is mainly photos as I’m off to bed ready for an early start out on three boat trips ( the last one an overnight trip on a floating YHA youth hostel, so no blog tomorrow night)– I just have to remember that even though my sun protection is factor 70  it doesn’t last all day in the fiery  New Zealand sun.

Now, lets see if I can make a  better job of the photos this time (a  new – little – computer and picture programme = issues for me!)

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(No, I can’t change the photo setup!)

Many thanks to Destination Northland for helping with my itinerary and Rental Cars New Zealandfor the vehicle for this road trip: I can recommend both!

Happy Holidays & Christmas to all my readers

PC244573.pohutukawaSending a bunch of pohutukawa flowers to you, my loyal readers who have signed up for emails when I write a new piece

( you can join them – use the button top right hand side of this page)
This is our kiwi Christmas tree, and when it flowers, it’s a signal that summer has arrived!

Next year you can expect many blogs on, not only Christchurch and Wellington, but also Northland (where I will be spending a  couple of weeks in February – think sun, fun, dolphins, parasailing, cruising, snorkelling, night adventures, stars, waka, food, history, NZ’s national day, gum-diggers – the list going on and on: I know you will love getting my stories, just as I will love researching them.  (The lengths I go to is amazing huh!) The rental car company I’m using is Rental Cars New Zealand.

Later in the year more stories from India,  then Borneo for my first time and hopefully Turkey if the tour I’m taking in May goes ahead (see here).

I hope your year will be great too.  All the very best for a wonderful 2012,

from,

Heather Hapeta