We rented a pontoon boat the next morning and slowly waddled up the river toward the mouth of Homosassa Springs—the main attraction for the hundred or so manatees that convene there on cold winter days. Not far from the mouth of the spring, in Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park (which also features swamp tours and live hippos imported from Africa), nearly 20 tourist-choked pontoon boats and more than a hundred snorkelers were packed in an area half the size of a football field. Manateemania. Not only were these people swimming with about two dozen manatees, but they were also rubbing the manatees' bellies and backs. Some people looked like they were trying to have sex with the poor beasts. Others, like members of a hunting party, were chasing down retreating manatees, desperate not to let them get away.
An elderly couple paddled up next to us in their canoe. It turned out they were Manatee Watch volunteers. When they see unlawful behavior, the couple told us, they approach the swimmers and discourage them from breaking the law. A few minutes after we spoke, this duo broke up a gang of swimmers who had separated a mother from her calf. Mostly, though, they just paddled along, caring but ineffectual. According to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers in this area gave out only six tickets for harassing manatees in 1999, and in five minutes we witnessed about 70 infractions. Where were those guys?
We watched as snorkeler after snorkeler harassed the lugubrious manatees. "Hey!" one particularly goofy swimmer yelled out. "He's got my hand with his flipper and won't let go. He really won't!" Take him down, I silently pleaded. Take him down.
Lisa, Russell, and Sandi got in to take pictures and a couple of manatees approached them. The manatees performed headstands and even nudged them with their noses to get scratched and petted. Whether this was true affection or simply a result of years of being hand-fed lettuce by misguided tourists was hard to tell.
I jumped in, too. Like everyone else, I just had to get a look from underwater. Although I now knew that swimming with manatees is unhealthy for the species, the animal's giantness is powerfully compelling. "See, we're not all bad," you're thinking as one gets closer and closer. Then, you reach out and...another manatee is dead.
What the hell is going on here? I began to wonder. This is an endangered species. People shouldn't be touching endangered species. Boats shouldn't be able to motor up to endangered species and drop dozens of tourists in their lap. There shouldn't be signs on the highway exhorting people to swim with the goddamned endangered manatees. Go swim with a Weeki Wachee mermaid! What was the State of Florida doing to these poor, dumb animals? What was the U.S. government doing?
Hell, why not let people feed them, take them home as pets, shoot them even? I've read that the meat tastes pretty good; some people still poach them. Soak their tails in brine and have a party! It really wouldn't matter. They're not going to be around much longer anyway, except in aquariums and zoos.
The manatee I saw underwater seemed to know this. "I'm doomed," his sad face said, as I kicked to scare him away. I hopped out of the river, revved our engine as loudly as possible, and happily saw a few manatees splash down to deeper, safer water.