American Sabbatical 83: 4/2/97
Its so easy to take a pass on roadside attractions. The chain flop we were dossed down in had its own bridge to the Homosassa State Game Reserve, and we tossed a coin in the morning. Captive critters or cool miles before noon? So many of the tourist traps are bogus, but the promise of manatees! It landed flipper side up.
The springs and headwaters of the Homosassa are enclosed to make
a rescue station for wounded sea cows, and a small zoo has been
attached, unfortunately. But the experience of spending time underwater
with these big bovines is truly grand, and Peggy never got beyond
the manatee basin.
My riding companion goes quite limp in the company of sea-mammals. She urfed along with the sea lions in their Oregon cave, and in San Francisco harbor, and has to be restrained in a boat in Maine when the seals come alongside. I could feel her sinking down to her point of buoyancy and beginning to ruminate as she kept company with the Homosassa clan. Here are her ruminations:
April 2 Manatees
Who? government + private donors
What? SAVE THE MANATEE 1-800-432 JOIN
Where? Homosasso Spring, Florida
How? wounded and abandoned manatees brought for rehabilitation
Topics: manatees, sea mammals, conservation
Questions: Is the manatee still an endangered species? Why?
At Homosassa Springs, ten manatees are being rehabilitated in a large enclosed area right around the spring. Visitors can see them from as little as three feet away as they feed in a float full of lettuce and kale (labeled the Manatee Salad Bar) or swim in the warm water. They are slowmoving, ponderous. They rise and sink slowly through the clear water with languid movements of their flippers and tail. The guide-volunteer said they are gentle and affectionate, one young manatee clutched his leg with her flippers as he fed them their vitamin biscuits.
There are only 2229 manatees left in the state of Florida and
that number is shrinking (the population grows 5% a year, but
is decreasing at 20% a year). In fact, 1996 had the most manatee
deaths (383 recorded) since 1974. Only 158 of these deaths were
from natural causes (the red tide). The rest are the result of
habitat loss (specifically the disappearance of sea grass) and
boating accidents. The jet skis and motorboats that throng in
Floridas rivers and bays collide with the gentle giants. Every
adult manatee I saw at Homosassa had visible scars.
There are speed regulations in the rivers (often disregarded)
and the Florida legislature is apparently considering a law that
would require covers on outboards. This would help but there would
still be injuries from the shock of collision. The manatee favor
a few river routes from the salt water to Floridas warm springs
(where they winter), but the government wont close these off
to humans. Habitat will continue to disappear to provide for the
thousands of new gated communities we saw under construction.
And Americans need their lawn grass (another import from England)
which drives out the native grasses. The sea grass loss is also
threatening Native American basketmakers.
There are four species of manatees: the West Indian (represented
here), the Amazonian, the West African, and the Pacific (or Dugong
identified by a forked tail).
One species (the stellar sea cow which grew to three and a half tons) was extinct by 1741. Manatees are also called sea cows and do have a bovine look as they placidly chew their vegetables.
Columbus thought they were mermaids. They grow to ten to twelve
feet and may weigh 1000 pounds. We saw pups and adults of all
sizes. The guide noted that sea cows are related to elephants
with similar body hair, skin, toenail, and teats under their front
legs(flippers). They can see forward and have good hearing.
Their squeaks could be heard over a speaker.
Manatees must have water over sixty degrees and they move up the
rivers, as the ocean cools, to the hot springs (Homosassa is a
spring thirty-five feet deep which produced two million gallons
a day at seventy-two degrees year-round). Salt and fresh water
each create problems. In the warm water, their skin becomes covered
with algae. Moving to salt water removes the algae, but then barnacles
attach to them. The rehabilitating manatees are scrubbed for algae.
The manatees at Homosassa are all injured or abandoned females.
Pups have been born here although the formal manatee breeding
program is at Sea World and Sea Aquarium. They calf every three
to five years. The Homosassa manatees are each named (ex. Rosie,
Amanda, Star) and are known as distinctive individuals by the
Rudyard Kipling made them central characters in his story The
White Seal. I remember Kiplings description of the seas cows
bowing in the water and moving placidly (like elderly gentleman)
while the frustrated white seal zipped around them and harried
them.The sea cows provide the answer for the white seal, who sought
to find a place safe from mans killing of sea mammals. I watched
the lovely quiet giants for hours wishing they still knew the
way through the tunnel to the beautiful island where man couldnt
While Peggy was entranced, I roamed the park with a sketchpad. The big alligators hauled
up on their sunny sand bank were sufficiently evil-looking to
wake a cold-blooded shiver. Watching the small children amble
noisily past the cyclone fence, with slit-eyed Jurassic nightmares
a foot away, made me wonder at our hubris, once again.
The family parties all shouting at the black bear, and the panther,
to get them to DO something, reminded me of the dissonances at
Yellowstone. Zoos, wildlife parks, call then what you will, ultimately
diminish all of us by denying us the dignity of fearful respect.
The owls and eagles stared right through me, exiled to a scientific
curiosity. A captive panther is no more awesome than a Unitarian
god. Give me that old time religion.
I could honor the rescue mission, however. Peggy was wise to wallow
with the sea beasts. The company of jovial sea-giants makes you
float, and slowly rotate. Hey buddy, toss that cabbage. Puffy hunks of humidity were pluming in off the Gulf and the glare
was playing hide-and-seek when we spun rubber at last. More wildflowers
painting the margins: tall red clovers and the spikes of mullien
blooming yellow, purple pansy-like carpets, and a full palette
of novelties. The rolling topology had us smiling, and the oak
parks, leafing out sallow green at the tops, while draped in smoky
moss below, cooled the air around us.
I could honor the rescue mission, however. Peggy was wise to wallow with the sea beasts. The company of jovial sea-giants makes you float, and slowly rotate. Hey buddy, toss that cabbage.
Puffy hunks of humidity were pluming in off the Gulf and the glare was playing hide-and-seek when we spun rubber at last. More wildflowers painting the margins: tall red clovers and the spikes of mullien blooming yellow, purple pansy-like carpets, and a full palette of novelties. The rolling topology had us smiling, and the oak parks, leafing out sallow green at the tops, while draped in smoky moss below, cooled the air around us.
We stopped to break bread and make a salad on the banks of the
Suwanee, down near its mouth. We gave it a rousing chorus of Way
down upon... in honor of ol Steve Foster, then segued into Deck
us all with Boston Charlie to recognize those mythic denizens
of the Okefenokee (where these waters rise), Porkey Pine and Churchy
LaFemme. The Suwanee bisects canoeing backcountry for much of
its length, and is at the edge of the great geezer-sprawl. We
entered Florida by crossing this watershed, and it feels like
new country back north of the Suwanee. Salad was good, too: fresh
spinach and tomato and orange with herbal feta and key lime dressing
Then we put the hammer down for Tallahassee. The pavement a wide swath through the pines. The undergrowth changing from palmettos and tropicals to spring hardwoods just bushing out in leaf. Weve back-tracked from high summer to late spring. Robins are cavorting in the trees.
We hoohawed as we climbed up a real hill and looked down on the state capitol, with a mini skyscaper looming behind it. The exact image of how governance relates to business. Wed hoped for a budget motel in this burg, but they were full of legislators and lobbyists. In fact, politicos in shirt-sleeves were out in the parking lots clotted in bunches, glad-handing and working their cell phones. We had to go slightly upscale to stay here at all. Another government town. Shake your hand and pick your pocket.
The Owl and Co, cruised the nearest strip, and found a good bookstore and a better music outlet. Weve about worn out the road music we started with, and are hunting for local vibes. Came away with a Jimmy Buffet tape, to congeal that South FLA feel. Were open for suggestions about Southern music. What should we be playing besides Marching Through Georgia?
Tallahassee seemed comfortably integrated to our cursory inspection. Its the first place where ALL the staff has been black in stores and restaurants, management included. The clientele was a rainbow, all melded together. I havent had any of those awkward encounters, where Ive broken some invisible rule, which I remember from Norfolk in the 60s. Of course I notice race. Im from Maine where the only kind is the one Joanie Benoit runs. Tallahassee may be color-blind, I cant tell.. but Im just a Yankee in a strange land, and it feels good to me to treat everyone with cautious optimism and not get slapped down for it.
It was still hot enough to loll by the pool with a pot boiler and let the chlorine dry on us. I forgot to mention that Salvador Dali wrote a book listing the 50 secret keys to painting. Rule #23 is to take your clothes off. It was warm enough to have a surreal evening.