Sunday, December 17, 2006

See More Manatees

MISTAKING A HALF-TON MANATEE for a lithesome mermaid is a sign of dangerous nearsightedness--or extreme desperation. But according to legend, Spaniards sailing the Caribbean centuries ago did just that, imagining these roly-poly creatures with their oven-mitt flippers and sad-looking, bewhiskered snouts to be beautiful sea sirens. Now, paddlers and hikers can appreciate these giant herbivores for what they truly are--gentle, curious marine mammals.

Come winter, manatees congregate in southern Florida's balmy 70°F-plus waters after their summer migrations as far north as the Chesapeake Bay and as far west as the Texas Gulf Coast. They swim in salt as well as freshwater environments, and prefer depths ranging from 0 to 20 feet.

Manatee numbers in the United States have declined to about 3,100, despite longstanding state and federal protections. Threatened by no natural predators, manatees die primarily from human influence: speedboat collisions, habitat destruction, and entrapment in canal locks. Watercraft alone kill 70 to 80 manatees every year, and many adults bear scars from boat propellers.

Because of their curious nature, manatees often put themselves in danger--but they also afford dramatic wildlife-viewing opportunities for kayakers. "It's quite an experience having this free-ranging animal the size of a small elephant come right up to you," says Robert Bonde, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Here's how and where to observe these gentle giants safely as they winter along the Florida coast.

Each winter, Florida's manatees flock to the islands in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Kings Bay, 75 miles north of St. Petersburg ( Kayak 7 miles from the bay to the Gulf, passing through sawgrass marshes that are popular winter feeding grounds. Aardvark's Florida Kayak Company, which is known for its LNT approach to manatee tours, offers river trips for $40 per person.

Halfway between Daytona Beach and Orlando, this park's 72°F spring attracts manatees all winter. Put in at the visitor center, and glide along St. Johns River beside moss-draped cypress trees to reach Hontoon Island State Park, Book a trip with Suwannee River Canoe & Kayak ($40;

The vegetation-thick waters around the Ten Thousand Islands are popular with hungry manatees. From the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, paddle 3 miles south across the Chokoloskee Bay (beware of high waves) to Sandfly Island. Circle the mangrove-covered island on a 1-mile hiking trail while scanning for manatees feeding

Heavy breathers Manatees sleep under water, periodically surfacing to breathe without waking. They typically stay submerged for 3 to 4 minutes, but can go as long as 20 minutes without coming up for air.

Solo swimmers Except for mothers with calves, most manatees feed and cruise alone. Occasionally, a herd of 3 to 20 manatees will travel, breed, and feed together for a short period.

Close encounter If a manatee approaches your canoe or kayak, "stop paddling and drift quietly," Bonde says. If it surfaces under your boat, tap the vessel's side to alert it to your presence. Otherwise, "lf you startle the manatee, it may turn abruptly and unintentionally flip your craft," Bonde says.

Dark water Manatees prefer murky, muddy water because the vegetation they consume grows best there. In addition to aquatic plants, they sometimes eat shoreline vegetation.

Hotspots In winter, manatees congregate around warm-water springs in Florida's inland waterways. On hatter days, look for them near river mouths and in lagoons, bays, and canals. Prime viewing time is midday.

Ripple effect A manatee's paddlelike tail creates a series of oval ripples as the animal surfaces; watch for these telltale waves to locate a submerged manatee. If you encounter one in the wild, take the passive approach and let it approach you; pursuing or harassing manatees is against the law.

Leave No Trace When boating, respect no-wake zones and post a manatee lookout. When swimming or paddling, allow manatees to approach you--never reach out and pet them. Avoid mothers with calves, so they don't become separated.


Friday, December 01, 2006

With Lots of Love

MY MOTHER'S FAVORITE PART OF the Christmas season was the ex change of cards. "It's the one time of year I get to hear the news," she would explain. She did not live far from where she was born and raised, but many of her friends, following the end of World War II, had settled in faraway places.

Sometime in November, she would set up the card table in her bedroom, organize the cards and envelopes around her, and begin. Like a scholar bent over an important work, she would spend days crafting her cards, writing each one individually. In her round, open script, she shared what mattered to each of these far-flung friends. A little tower of plump sealed envelopes would slowly rise beside her. Once, in the 1950s, a cousin of hers began the tradition of sending out typed newsletters, not even signed personally. My mother felt cheated by this mass production of the yearly greeting.

She always tried to get her cards into the mail by the first week of December. She sent them off as if on the wings of carrier pigeons. She expected something in return, and her wish was always granted. Waiting for the mail truck to ease away from the mailbox, she would pull on her coat, wrap her head in a woolen scarf, and tuck her feet into her fleece-lined boots for the walk up the driveway, often through new-fallen snow. She would return, clutching the thick, square envelopes, sometimes red or green, like prizes. "There's one from Claire!" she would exclaim. Claire, her next-door neighbor growing up, was by then living in Florida, and she always wrote the long messages for which my mother hungered.

My mother wouldn't open the cards right away but leave them unopened on the hall table. When my father would come home from work, they opened them together and sometimes read them out loud. My sister and I would sit with them and hear about friends like Claire, whom we had never met but about whom we knew a great deal.

Some of my friends today have abandoned sending cards. Too expensive. Too time-consuming. But, like my mother, I never want to lose touch. Without Christmas cards, I would never know that the little boys 1 once babysat for are now men with interesting jobs and children about to go away to college. How can it be? I wonder. Another friend is in remission from her cancer. Another is getting divorced, and yet another married. All that life has to offer seems to unfold on this little Christmas stage, which, for my mother, began at a card table.

And so, starting in November, I settle at the kitchen table and begin to write. My mother would be disheartened to know that most of us, by now, have adopted the method of her forward-thinking cousin, recounting the major events of our year in newsletter style. For the rest, the part that counts, I sometimes stay up till midnight, scribbling personal notes, watching snow fall, and, in the morning, mail them off with lots of love and the strong hope of a return.

By Edie Clark