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Searching for Manatee on the Indian River Lagoon in Florida

The Indian River Lagoon is located in Fort Pierce, Florida at the southernmost end of North America’s largest and most diverse estuary system. The Indian River Lagoon is also home to Manatees. 

Paddling alongside red mangrove in brackish water was as mystical and foreign an experience as I’d had in a long time. What was even more mystical was what I was searching for – a 1,000 pound mammal I was told was as gentle as they come, and endangered as well, here in a wild region that once harbored the last dusky seaside sparrow.

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I’ve always been a Northern girl. That’s why, when a new flame asked me if I wanted to join him on a trip to Fort Pierce, Florida to pick-up his kayaks in the middle of August, I had my hesitations. I love kayaking but not the heat.

When he began to tell me about the sea turtles and manatees, my nature enthusiast self caved in completely. I was “in” for an eco-adventure.

Indian River Lagoon In Florida

The area boasts over 4,000 species of flora and fauna, including many endangered and threatened ones like the West Indian manatee, the American alligator, the roseate tern, the wood stork, Bachman’s warbler, as well as leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles. The region runs 156 miles down the east coast of Florida from Daytona to Fort Pierce. It comprises 5 State Parks, 4 Federal Wildlife Refuges, a National Seashore, and the Kennedy Space Center.

Bruce had worked as a volunteer at the Manatee Observation and Education Center on Hutchinson Island near Fort Pierce so that was our first stop. Here I learned that only an estimated 3,200 manatee remain in the wild and need protection. Adult manatees grow to 1,000 pounds and reach lengths of 13 feet, living to be 50 or 60 years old.

Manatees are herbivores, feeding primarily on seagrass, and even though they live entirely in the water, they are surface breathers needing air at least every three to five minutes. Manatees end up seriously injured or scarred when they rise up for a breath of air and are accidentally hit by motor boats who experience a “now you see them, now you don’t”. Gladly, we would be paddling our un-motorized boats.

A few short miles away we pulled into the Round Island Riverside boat ramp parking area located off S A1A, near the St Lucie County line. The riverside also offers a fishing boardwalk, an observation tower, picnic areas, and bathrooms; the beach area is across the road. We unloaded the kayaks under live oaks and cabbage palms covered in sea grapes and strangler figs. The water was flat and calm.

In the water I felt my excitement grow. The channels we paddled were an underwater rainforest of sea grass – the manatee’s daily bread. Deeper into the leggy mangrove islands, Australian pines offered contrast to a level and hazy horizon. Brown pelicans floated in small flocks while pink spoonbills searched the shores for oysters and bitty crabs. This area of Florida was like nothing I had imagined finding here – this was one of Florida’s last remaining wildernesses.

We pulled off onto one of the many sand dune islands nearby Round Island to stretch our legs and noticed that the sky was looking less overcast and more storm-like as haze gave rise to cumulous nimbus. We decided to just finish our loop back towards the put-in before the weather broke.

We got to the put-in and still no manatees. I began to worry we would have to abandon our paddle before I ever saw the elusive manatee. Bolts of lightning appeared off on the southern horizon beneath burgeoning thunderheads. We circled lightly near our take-out, still searching the underwater landscape.

“There!” Bruce yelled. “A manatee!”

I paddled over to where he pointed, but when I saw the green-gray shape, several feet long and headed under my boat, I was suddenly filled with more fear than awe. One false move and my kayak would capsize and it, and I, would be in the murk together.

“Holy cow,” I said, no pun intended, as Bruce helped me pull my boat to shore. Neither of us wanted to leave the water, but Nature’s forces were urging us otherwise. As quickly as they came the clouds headed out toward the ocean proper, and the estuary seemed safer.

That was when Bruce really surprised me. He walked right into the potentially alligator and shark infested water (not that we had seen any of those either). Long backs of manatee bodies were rising and falling around him. He was standing perfectly still with his arm outstretched.

“Come here, Angie,” he called. “Come into the water – they’re gentle.”

Okay, I began to think this man was crazy. I mean, these animals were nearly 1,000 pounds. They could crush me. I was terrified to get into that water!

“C’mon,” he kept urging with a big grin.

I slowly entered the dark water, warm and silky against my skin.

“Here,” he said. “Put out your hand.”

Hesitantly I dipped my hand under and felt…. the warm back of a manatee. The animal let me rub his back for a minute, and then, just as gently as could be, he sank slowly downward and out of reach. As I stood there, a cow put her head up and looked at us with enormous and gentle brown eyes. Her nostrils opened and closed as she spurted out some water before inhaling.

Did they know how far I had come to see them? Maybe Bruce had called them in just for me. I was giddy with this adventure and it seemed, to my own egotistical self, that these magnificent animals were just as happy to see me. I learn over and over in my life that the best experiences involve making connections with the natural world and the other species we share it with.

Manatees and lagoons are also very romantic.

What & Where:
Round Island Park
(S A1A, near Indian River/St Lucie County line, Vero Beach)
Heathcote Botanical Gardens (210 Savannah Rd, Fort Pierce; 772-464-4672)
Manatee Observation and Education Center (480 Indian River Dr, Fort Pierce) View these gentle giants and their offspring in a natural habitat and learn about the Indian River Lagoon Estuary. $1 donation per person. Open Oct. 1 to June 30, Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sun. 1-4 p.m. Located across from the Fort Pierce Utilities Power Plant.
St Lucie County Marine Center (420 Seaway Dr, Fort Pierce)
The Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit :Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday Noon to 4 p.m. Admission: Adults $2, Children $1 and Seniors $1.50


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