Disclaimer : We are WELL aware of the controversy associated with being in the water with manatees. It is something that we took very seriously and strongly considered not doing. We did a lot of research before settling on the company that we chose. They were highly recommended and we were very happy with the experience that we were given with them.
My alarm went off at 445, and I jumped out of bed faster than I think I ever have. It was MANATEE DAY! I quickly went about getting students out of bed and ready to go. This was our earliest morning, and the only morning that kids had to remember things, but, as usual, everyone was ready to go. A couple of girls had fallen ill so Alyssa (Ms. Becker) had decided to stay back with them. I had half-heartedly offered to stay with them, but in reality it was a lifelong dream of mine to see manatees. This was the one day on the trip that I had taken a real leadership role in planning. Alyssa’s taking one for the team was bigger than she even knew.
Something you never want to hear from your bus driver at 5 am…. « I’m not sure the bus is going to make it…I think the transmission is failing ». Something you NEVER EVER want to hear from your bus driver « I’m going to have to pull over and wait for a new bus cause this one is done » especially when you are on the side of the freeway at 6 am with over 20 sleeping teenagers. Luckily the new bus came quickly, we did a daring switch into the new one and we were back on our way.
We arrived at Crystal River watersports about 40 minutes late, but they were ready and waiting for us and after a quick explanation on how to act around manatees and why they are endangered and squishing ourselves into wet suits (with varying degrees of sucess) we piled onto our assigned boats and off we went. We were extremely lucky in that the day that we went out was the last day that you were allowed to enter certains parts of the river with boats in order to protect the manatees who come up the rivers in the winter months to keep warm. This was a complete coincidence, but extremely lucky for us.
Words cannot describe the experience of being in the water and having one of these 2000 pound mammals swim towards you. Without a doubt I can classify it as one of the top 10 experiences in my life, and many of the students considered it the highlight of the trip. We had been advised before we got in the water to stay as still and quiet as possible, and not to surround a manatee. I am so pleased to say that the students were amazing. In the hour that we were in the water, everyone got close to a manatee and no one acted inappropriately. It was utterly amazing.
Admittedly, I dropped the ball and somewhere got the idea that we were not allowed to bring our towels on the boat with us, so when we got out of the water there were some very cold students and teachers…I borrowed the coat of our captain to help keep me warm.
Upon our return to dry land, a change of clothes and well deserved Subway/McDonalds lunch was all that stood between us and the headlands of the Everglades. We were set to go our airboat tours to see aligators. Pulling up to Wild Willy’s airboat adventures, I wondered what I had gotten us into. While Trip Advisor had highly recommended the company, and they had been fantastic with accomodating our large group, the building was a small shed on the water in the middle of a trailer park. I am however EXTREMELY pleased to report that the company exceeded my expectations.
For the airboat tours, we were able to have 6 people on each boat at a time. This meant breaking up the students so that half went on a tour while the other half stayed behind. In the time that we were waiting, we were given the chance to relax, have a snack, unwind (hugely important on this trip), and hold a baby aligator. This was awesome! When I went on the tour I was sad to only see once large gator, but when one of the girls asked about a flower she saw our guide took it as an opportunity to tell us all about lotus flowers and the other plants of the area. I later found out that all the different tours were different based on the group. The same guide that took myself and the girls out and talked about flowers, talked about predators and prey with the boys. It was an awesome experience that was significantly more informative than I expected, but just as fun.
What was interesting to me on this day was the reaction of the students. Many of them expressed that it was one of their favourite days mainly because it was something different. They had all been to theme parks before and even though it was different in them, none of them had ever swam with manatees…some didn’t even know what they were.