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Swimming with the Manatees

by JP on Feb.19, 2010, under Florida Outdoor Travel

Homosassa, Florida


This morning I had one of the most amazing nature experiences of my life. I was kissed, cuddled, and connected to a wild manatee, named Goofy by the locals. These manatees have made their winter home in the warm spring waters of Homosassa, Florida. Most of them love to just lay on the bottom, but a few seem to be just as curious about humans as we are about them.

My Experience

This morning began after we booked a tour with Captain Mike of Sunshine River Tours. The tour was $45 and included wetsuits, snorkel gear,light snack and a three hour trip to swim with the manatees.

Our tour began with chilly 35 degree weather at 5:30 AM. Upon arrival, we were given wetsuits and watched a video on the rules of manatee encounters. First rule, don’t go beyond the surface to bother a resting manatee.  The most important law, to me, is that swimmers must allow manatees to come to them at the surface and not chase them. This is federal law, and exists to protect this very endangered species.

After taking a bus a total of one block to the pontoon boat, we were greeted by our captain, one of the Captain Mikes (more on that later).  Our captain, and the one I hope you all get had a degree in marine biology, and was one of the most personable and knowledgeable guides I have had on any experience. After going through the rules, we set off on a 45 minute ride in a partially enclosed by plastic sheeting, but very cold boat. This was probably the worst part of the trip just due to the temperature. The distance isn’t very far from the dock, but obviously the boat must go very slow to avoid endangering any manatees. We did, however, get to see our first surfacing manatees on the way out.

When we arrived at the cove, we were shown two off-limit sanctuaries bordering each river bank and told we could stay anywhere in between them, but not to cross into them as they were for the protection of the manatees wishing to be left alone. I was a bit apprehensive about entering water with temperatures hovering around 40 outside, but the year round 72 degree water was a welcome reprieve for my frozen feet.

The water ranged from approximately 6 to 12 feet deep, and immediately offered sightings of two manatees off the port side of the boat. For the first 30 minutes or so, almost all of the manatees I saw were lying on the bottom. Occasionally, one would roll over and look up at me, but then the captain told us that one of the frequent “characters” was nearby. This manatee named Cuddles, made a brief appearance swimming about 10-12 feet in front of us. After that, it seemed the manatee herd was awake and ready for a swim.

The waters became alive with manatees swimming in every direction, not all at the same time, but often and usually surprising us from out of nowhere. They were all still several feet away, but it was great to be able to see their faces and how agile these 1500 pound “sea cows” are in the water. I watched several of them swim all around the cove, and began to approach the boat for a rest on the ladder. As I approached, Goofy, a manatee known for acting like a goofy dog, approached the deck of the pontoon and began surfacing for a woman who wasn’t swimming.

This is when the most magical thing happened. I swam towards Goofy slowly, and looked him in his cute “puppy dog” eyes and I swear he looked back at me. He then turned his head towards me, and very slowly approached my face with his snout. Goofy then began nuzzling or kissing my mask. As my hair brushed  his nose, he then turned towards the top of my head and began sucking on my hair as if it were the grass he ate. This was not painful at all and actually very sweet. We had bonded in that primal way that I believe man and dog often bond. After I pulled away from Goofy, he turned back towards me and began rubbing up against me. I couldn’t believe it, I was actually playing with a wild manatee! He wanted to be petted and I was more than willing to oblige this animal that dwarfed me several times over.

Goofy eventually turned back towards my head for more kisses and then moved on for a few minutes to one of the other nine in our group. After he left this older gentlemen, he disappeared out of sight and I returned to looking at the other manatees swimming by in the distance.  As my wife approached, we decided to exit the water due to the coldness, but before we go up, Goofy approached again.  Once again, he briefly nuzzled my face and rolled over for a good belly rub. Manatees have a slick, soft skin covered by sporadic long, white hairs. This time, my wife was able to pet him as well. It was really amazing how gentle these giants nuzzled and played. They are very caring creatures, not only towards their own kind but strangers such as us as well.

Goofy left, and we climbed out into the cold.  The winter air was excruciating, but our captain said that the best time of year to see the manatees is when you can see your breath.  We quickly changed out of our wet suits into warmer clothes.  Just as our captain was pulling up anchor to leave, he told me Goofy had surfaced on the starboard side. It was as if he were appearing one more time just to say good-bye. My connection with the manatees had ended, but I will carry the memories of Goofy’s soft nuzzles and warm puppy dog eyes forever.

More information to come on the tour, manatees, and the Homasassa area.

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Camping with Your Spouse

by JP on Feb.12, 2010, under Camping, Environmental Issues, Outdoor Travel

Valentine Heart

On this Valentine’s Day, I wanted to write an article discussing the enjoyment and benefits I get from hiking with my wife, and that others can get when sharing the outdoors with their significant others.

This summer the Ms. and I did a good bit of camping together on a couple of road trips and several weekend outings in the mountains. One of the things I started thinking about is the pleasures I get camping with my wife. While I do enjoy going camping with the guys on occasion, camping with one’s spouse seems to bring certain unique benefits that one doesn’t get from camping with your pals. As such, I thought I would make a list of some of these unique benefits, and see what you guys thought might be some benefits I missed.

1. Shared Chores- Anytime I go camping the people I camp with split up some of the more common chores, you get the firewood, I’ll set up the fire pit, you get the food ready, I’ll set up the tent. Chore allocation is common, I believe, for all campers.

With that said, there are certain chores that you simply wouldn’t want to ask anyone other than your spouse to do, perhaps more so if you’re a guy. I enjoy setting up a campfire, and there  just seems to be something that is simply primal about starting a fire for warmth and cooking. Now, this primal act tends to a desire for all guys I camp with, and so most of the time, we have three to four guys telling each one the best way to find kindling, set up the logs, and start the fire.

When camping with my wife, she has little to no interest in starting the fire. I’m proud to say she can and does, and I’ve seen her successfully start fires in near downpours, but while I’m starting the fire, she often turns to arranging the interiors of the tent, including laying out sleeping pads, bags and pillows. This is always a nice treat, as my style would be to pull the bag out around midnight when I go to sleep, and try to arrange it all in the dark and cold.

Similarly, we split packing responsibilities for going camping, and when leaving the camp site. She can pack up the sleeping bags while I take any garbage out, and do general cleanup around the camp site.

2. Cheap Mini-vacation – Where I work, I often hear some of my co-workers complain that they never get to go anywhere because they can’t afford it. I find that discussing my weekend camping trips often brings on some resentment and envy. Camping with my spouse allows us both to be able to get away into nature a lot more often than we would if we had to pay for expensive hotels, and is often much more relaxing than that type of vacation. While sleeping on the ground may not be for everybody, I think most have never tried it, and convincing one’s spouse to give it a try may be worth a shot.

3.Sex- Not sure what else needs to be said here, but being in the great outdoors can add some spice and romance to the love life. Just make sure you’re in a closed tent, and in a private location. Not a bad added benefit to camping with the spouse, but you don’t want to disturb any neighbors or cause them to have awkward conversations with their children.

4. Better meals- When not backpacking, I find that my wife and I often eat better meals when camping than I do when camping with friends. The problem, I believe arises in the additional planning that is required to cook more complex meals. Camping with other guys, no one wants to plan these meals. Most of the time we settle for some basic dogs on a stick, marshmallows, stew, and/or some breakfast food. This prevents the possibility of a meal failure in the woods.

With my wife, we can plan out a menu while in the grocery store together, and if it is a complete failure, we can always drive to the nearest town for some hotdogs and buns.

5. Conversation or Not – Another pleasure I get from camping I often find is the quiet and solitude of the woods. When camping with friends, there is often some expectation of maintaining a conversation. While I love being able to have real conversations around a campfire, and have found that some of my most in depth discussions have occurred when there’s no TV, and only a fire to distract,  I believe that camping with friends can cause one to miss out on the silence.

With a spouse, the expectations of conversations are difference. A couple that has been together long enough no longer feels the need to be constantly speaking to each other. Conversation is comfortable, but silence is too. Camping with a spouse brings the unique qualities of wonderful fireside chats, while simultaneously providing the opportunity to simply listen to nature’s sounds and silence.

6. Shared Memories of a Lifetime – Many of the friends I camp with live a good distance away, and we use camping to reconnect. As such, camping trips provide a great time to enjoy and embrace the present and some time in nature.

With a spouse, those same benefits exist, but certain memories can be shared and remembered for years down the road.  I can’t remember everytime I’ve been camping, or all the places I’ve been, but I do remember every trip I have taken with my wife. The experiences we have we get to talk about often, and relate other life experiences to them. Just a few months ago we ran into our first close encounter with a black bear while hiking. We were only a few feet away from her when we spooked her.

This intense moment would be something I would relive with friends or my spouse, but with a spouse we talk about it often, and relate it to numerous other life experiences we have shared. This keeps these camping trips even more vivid and sentimentally more valuable.

7. Leave When You Want - We’ve all been camping on one of those weekends when the weather just sucked all of the joy out of camping. When camping with pals, I generally will tough it out.  With the wife, we’ve been known to camp in some bad weather, but if the weather lasts more than a night or so, I find I am much more willing to ask her if she wants to leave. Camping with a spouse avoids the always awkward decision-making/compromising process of trying to take charge while avoiding being bossy. This dialogue is simply not necessary in the freer dialogue of a relationship.

8.Split the load – Finally, when backpacking, I have found that it is much easier to split our loads of equipment. We are much more willing to share equipment with each other and carry each others stuff than we would be if hiking with others. I would never ask for someone to carry any of my stuff, but my wife and I can split the weight more evenly (meaning I can volunteer to carry more without her having to feel bad for asking).

What do you all think? Are there any other benefits to camping with a spouse over other friends.  Anyone see any benefits in the opposite, or camping alone?

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY EVERYONE, and don’t forget to tell your significant others how much they mean.

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Free the Hikers

by JP on Feb.02, 2010, under Hiking Trails

As most of you are probably aware by  now, six months ago 3 hikers, Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal, were arrested while hiking in Northern Iraq for allegedly crossing over the Iranian border.  Iran has continued to hold these 3 hikers in prison, and refuses to release them or adhere to any international standards for treatment or criminal charges.

Regardless of your beliefs in whether or not these hikers had any business hiking in this region, we as Americans should support our fellow Americans and encourage our elected leaders to get involved in this situation to help.

Hiking is a freedom we should be able to enjoy without fear of detainment. I can’t imagine hiking in Texas, and being detained for accidentally crossing over the Mexican border, or hiking up North and being accused of spying on Canada. Iran is a paranoid country with tyrannical leadership. At worst these hikers should have received nothing more than a slap on the wrist, but Iran has instead made them part of a political statement, rather than act humanely.

News from recent Belgian tourists released from Iran indicate that these hikers are not only  being held in prison, but are being held in deplorable conditions, and are likely being kept in solitary confinement for the duration of their detainment. These actions are in violation of numerous international laws regarding the treatment of “criminals.”

I encourage all of you to write your elected officials today, and ask for their invovlement.  We need to try to get our fellow American hikers released and back to their families as soon as possible.

Until then, we should be praying for them and their families, and hoping that Iran will demonstrate some compassion for innocent human life, despite their deranged political agenda.

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