Tuesday, October 21, 2014

That time I swam with manatees in Florida

Two weeks ago Jon and I were in Disney World with my sister Annie. It's a trip that we've been wanting to do since we were dating (that's over ten years, people) that came to fruition thanks mostly to my friend offering us a special through her timeshare company (thanks, Leslie!!!!!!) We scored a full week at the Marriott Grande Vista for $380, basically eliminating the biggest expense associated with a Disney vacation and kickstarting our planning in earnest. Anyway I'm getting ahead of myself because obviously there will be lots of Disney recap to come. This post is about swimming with manatees (see title), which we did our first day in Florida.

We flew in on Saturday but our first day in the parks wasn't until Monday, so we had a day to fill. After throwing around a few suggestions, Jon came across some information about an area called Crystal River less than 2 hours from Orlando. It's the only place on earth where you can (legally) swim with, and interact with, manatees. HERE IS MY MONEY PLEASE TAKE IT.

If you know me at all or have followed my blog for any amount of time, you know how excited I was about this. We booked our reservations and I went from having no idea you even COULD swim with manatees to compulsively checking our tour company's page on TripAdvisor multiple times a day to see how the manatee conditions were looking. Early October isn't prime manatee season in Crystal River so I told myself I'd be happy just seeing one from the boat. (I would have been, too, but fortunately we had much better luck than that.)

We very nearly missed our tour. We woke up plenty early, but made an ill-fated stop for egg McMuffins at a crucial interchange on the way there and didn't realize we'd gotten on the wrong freeway until we were 15 miles down the road. I haven't felt that level of stress and sheer panic in a long time. I think I gave myself AND Annie and Jon ulcers. (There were a couple more moments of that panic later in the Disney parks too; just you wait.)

Miraculously we made it to our tour with just two minutes to spare (this is why you always give yourself A CRAPLOAD OF TIME to get to places you care about, folks) and were immediately ushered into the briefing room, fitted for wetsuits, and directed to the shuttle that took us to the pier.

Get ready for dozens of pictures. I can't edit when it comes to one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life (and why should I? Get outta here.)

So excited! We knew it would be a successful excursion when we spotted our first manatee before we even got out of the shuttle.

Wetsuit Sexy

I love this picture so much. Annie's face matched my own.

Manatee sighting! Our tour guide called this a "mating group," and they were feeling very frisky. We didn't get in the water with them.

Annie on the lookout.

Jon, me, Annie (and our tour guide Sean) on the lookout.

And we had our first chance!! Of course it happened in the only deep, murky water in all of Crystal River. This was terrifying. Visibility in this water was about 2 feet. (That manatee I'm touching in the picture is nearly at the surface.) There was a moment shortly after we all got in the water that the tour guide yelled at me from the boat "It's coming right at you!!" in what I'm sure was meant to be in a happy/excited tone, but which I heard as though in a horror movie. Three seconds later, it was suddenly THERE, a foot from my face. These things are massive; it certainly got my heart racing.
The group we saw here were all covered in algae. According to our tour guide, that meant they had spent the summer in Crystal River (the vast majority only winter there).

Headed back for the boat. The pool noodles were super handy since we were swimming in fresh water, not salt.

BABY MANATEE!!!! We headed up a little channel towards Three Sisters springs (more on that later) and came across a group of two adults and a calf. They were swimming the opposite direction so we turned around, got ahead of them, then hopped in the water to watch/touch them as they swam past.

Coming up for air

The scenery was so gorgeous.

This was so awesome. We came across an enormous sleeping manatee. Our tour guide positioned us in a semi-circle around him and let us observe for about 20 minutes. It was so peaceful floating there, trying to be as still as possible, watching him napping. About every 4-5 minutes he'd rise to the surface for air then sink back down, never waking. We gave him space and just observed.

Money shot

I can't tell 100% if this picture is of Annie or not. But judging from the toes, I'm going to say yes.

After watching the sleeping manatee for a good long while, we swam up into an area called Three Sisters Springs that contributes to the headwater of Crystal River. In the winter there can be over a hundred manatees just in this small area (they like it cuz it's warm), but we didn't see any up there. The water was so perfectly aquamarine and clear and refreshing. We spent about 30 minutes swimming to all three springs, diving down for closer looks, watching fish/crabs, and gasping over the beautiful scenery.

Me and Jon

Sooooo gorrrrgeous can't wait to go back

My hair is really not that red. Unfortunately.

Me and Jon navigating some treacherous roots

"But officer, the sign didn't say anything about gouging."

Our tour company, River Ventures, was fantastic. We couldn't have been more pleased with our choice (they even took the majority of these pictures). It was all about respect and love for the animals, waiting to find the right manatees under the right circumstances, and letting them interact on their own terms. We unfortunately saw a couple of other tour groups harassing the animals - rushing them, splashing, making loud noises. YOU MAKE THE ANIMALS SKITTISH AND IT RUINS IT FOR EVERYONE. Idiots.
Next: Disney!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Summer Idaho Trip Part 3

Out of order, but this is me napping in Annie's backyard because Penny's deafening cough kept us up all night long for several nights in a row. On our drive up, kid you not, every time she felt a fit coming on she'd stand up and point forward, positioning her head directly in line with our ears, and "BAH!!! BAH!!!! BAH!!!! BAH!!!!! BAH!!!!! BAH!!!! BAH!!!!! BAH!!!! *hack*" 

Corinne's kids were excited to see her. I had warned them beforehand that she had a cough, but the moment I opened the bathroom door and she started up, they both hastily retreated with disturbed looks on their faces.

Mesa Falls

Yikesy salt and pepper holders at the Frostop on our way back from the falls.

Good root beer floats though.

On our last evening at my parents' place, this double rainbow appeared over their horse pasture. Gorgeous.

Ma 'n Charlie, apres bath.

We made a detour to The Farm on our way back to Heber (where we spent a night to shorten the next day's drive). Scenery overload:

Jon, testing the wheat for quality (?)

Yes, we all three wore bright orange, somehow. We walked into the kitchen that morning, gazed around at each other, and collectively shrugged.

Hummingbirds! Annie heaven.

Meeting Kelsey's latest, Charlie! They made a boy!!

Picking raspberries. NOMG.

Hazel meeting Penny.

Jon's other sister, Caylee, had given Kelsey the surprise of her life by flying in from freaking CANADA and just strolling through the front door of the farmhouse a couple of days before we got there, so it was awesome to see not one but TWO sisters-in-law that day!

Leaving the farm. I know this picture is huge, I did it on purpose because I love it.

More naps

"Lucky you; that's as demonstrative as Dash ever gets!" --Annie

Cuz I did her hair

Penny crawled into my lap as we drove through a little thunderstorm. Little did she know what was to come....

It was as scary as it looks. Close-range lightning, torrential downpour, and we barely avoided a rock slide on the road.

Other things that happened, unpictured:

  • Tony's Tacos in Heber (x2)
  • Scones at the Hub in Heber (x2)
  • NOT eating at the Hickory in Rexburg, even though I've been looking forward to it for a year (literally. I think of it at least once a week. That was the ONE WEEK A YEAR they're closed for cleaning!!!!) This was how we ended up eating gas station barbecue instead (see Part 1)
  • Ada pretending like she couldn't tell me and Corinne apart cuz she thinks we look alike. "I don't even know which one of you is my mommy!"
  • My mom asking us to clean up after dinner, then her coming back a half hour later and saying "You guys are off to a good start!" .....We thought we were done :(

Runner up for best moment of the trip: We went to see Planet of the Apes with Annie and Steve in Heber (their first viewing, our second) and stocked up on contraband at Walgreens beforehand. SIX boxes of candy plus drinks; a veritable feast. But after we bought our tickets, the lady goes, "Okay, now I need to check the ladies' purses."

We recovered slightly, both began muttering words, and drifted out the door to return our contraband to the car.

And the winner of best moment of the trip: Christa told us the most spectacular story. Her aunt and uncle were watching her parents' dog Taffy (Kathy??) while they were out of town. After about a day, Judy texted to see how they were getting along. The response: "Great! Taffy's sitting on Bob's lap as we speak" then, a minute later, "He keeps chewing his penis, is that okay?" Judy, horrified!!!, wrote back "NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!" and immediately showed Christa's sister Brittany the exchange.

Brittany assured her that Val meant Taffy kept chewing his own penis, not Bob's.

It's over!