Christmas with the Mermaids (Manatees)

December 21, 2011 by  
Filed under Feature Story, Guest Bloggers, Lifestyle

Guest blog post by Bob Vogel

Bob and his daughter, Sarah, steer the pontoon boat before they snorkel with manatees

Rays of sunlight broke through early morning mist as I piloted the pontoon boat toward an area where the gentle giant manatees are known to congregate. Our eyes combed the calm waters looking for swirls created by the mammal’s huge, flat, mermaid-like tail. “I see a swirl! Look there’s another!” shouted my daughter Sarah and her best friend, Alyssa, as they excitedly watched a mother and her calf swim by the boat. Dropping anchor, we donned our gear, I transferred to my ROHO® ADAPTOR® Pad protector on the deck of the boat and got ready to join the others in the water to begin our quest — snorkeling with manatees.

In early December, my ten-year-old daughter Sarah and I flew to Florida for an early Christmas vacation — snorkeling with manatees was our main goal. Sharing our adventures were Sarah’s best friend Alyssa and her mother Debbie Pettit.

Our base for the manatee adventure was the town of Crystal River, Florida, home of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge — an area that supports the Florida’s largest concentration of manatees during winter months.

Manatees have a walrus-like face, two front flippers, and a large, flat, rounded tail. Adult manatees average 10–12 feet in length and they weigh between 1,000–1,500 pounds. When ancient sailors saw their long flat tails they mistook them for mermaids or sirens and were disappointed that they weren’t as attractive as the legends say. During the summer months they roam in warm, shallow coastal waters from Virginia to Louisiana. As ocean waters grow colder during winter months they swim inland to Florida’s warmer spring fed rivers — peak months to view them in these areas are November through March.

Bob and his daughter, Sarah, post for a picture after snorkeling with manatees.

Protected by strict state and federal laws, it is illegal to harass manatees — this includes swimming toward them. But manatees are curious and playful and when you remain still, they will often swim up and gently rub against you in a motion that any dog owner will recognize, “rub my back.” According to the rangers I spoke with, when a manatee swims up to you, it is OK to gently rub or scratch them.

As we hovered in the water, the first manatee gently swam by — for Sarah and Alyssa, having a 10-foot creature swim this close was a bit scary at first and they decided to get back in the boat and watch. The manatee came up to me and I gently scratched its back and it rolled over like a 1,000-pound puppy wanting a belly rub. After playfully scratching its back and belly for a while I slowly swam back to the boat — and the manatee followed, wanting more scratches. At this point Sarah, Alyssa and Debbie joined me and we all took turns letting the gentle giant swim up to us for back scratches and belly rubs.

When we finally climbed back in the boat I checked my watch — thinking we had been in the water for about ten minutes — we had been in the water for 1½ hours, the experience was so powerful that we lost track of time.

The dock and pontoon boat at the Crystal River Lodge Dive Center were fairly easy to wheel onto and there was plenty of width to spare on each side of my (14” seat width) chair. There is no lift on the boat, so getting into and out of the water requires good upper body strength and/or strong companions.

Our next stop was an amazing visit to Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The fully accessible park that offers manatee encounter programs, boat tours and showcases native Florida wildlife including alligators, panthers, black bears, bobcats and key deer.

A trainer feeds Winter, the dolphin from A Dolphin's Tale at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, FL.

The following day we drove to Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see Winter the dolphin, star of the film “A Dolphin’s Tale,” the true story about a bottlenose dolphin that was fitted with a prosthetic after he lost his tail from becoming entangled in a crab trap. It was very cool that the aquarium and animal rescue center are exactly as they appear in the movie — and fully accessible.

Bob poses with Winter the dolphin's prosthetic tale

After watching Winter, Debbie said, “You swim like him.” When Winter isn’t wearing his prosthetic tail he propels himself with his pectoral fins. When I snorkel I propel myself by waiving webbed finger gloves at my side. Debbie said “I was following you when we were with the manatees, and the way you swim with your webbed gloves looks just like Winter when he swims.” I thought. “Wow, me and Winter. That is cool!”

Last but not least on our adventure was a day at Universal Studios, — Sarah and Alyssa’s focus was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I haven’t read the Harry Potter books and have only seen a few of the movies, however the park is so cool that I got caught up in the excitement along with the other muggles and I’m now looking forward to reading the books.

Bob getting ready to board Harry Potter the Forbidden Journey ride at Universal Studios

The feature ride of the park is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which takes you through fully accessible passageways and corridors of Hogwarts Castle and School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The tour culminates with a state of the art, four-person flight simulator that takes you on a wild flight behind Harry on his broomstick through the castle, past the Whomping Willow and a horde of Dementors, into a Quidditch match. There is a secret (much faster) wheelchair entrance and a car reserved for wheelchair users and their families.

The side-to-side, up and down movement of the ride is intense and wheelers must be able to transfer to the (hard plastic) seat under their own power to be able to go on the ride. Once again, my ROHO ADAPTOR® Pad enabled me to safely enjoy the ride. Because the ride was a bit much for Sarah, the staff let Debbie and Alyssa go first. When they returned from the 5-minute ride it was my turn — Debbie stayed with Sarah and Alyssa got to stay on the ride with me. Alyssa got to ride twice and the ride was amazing! As a hang-glider pilot it takes quite a bit to impress me — this really felt like flying — flying through the world and stories of Harry Potter from the Forbidden Forrest to playing Quidditch! Even better — when the ride was over, the staff said, “You are welcome to stay on and ride again if you want!”

On the flight home I reflected on sharing the adventures of our Florida Christmas trip — more adventures to add the treasure chest of memories.

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Bob VogelBob Vogel, 51, is a freelance writer for the ROHO Community blog. He is a dedicated dad, adventure athlete and journalist. Bob is in his 26th year as a T10 complete para. For the past two decades he has written for New Mobility magazine and is now their Senior Correspondent. He often seeks insight and perspective from his 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, and Schatzie, his 9-year-old German Shepherd service dog.

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