After 10 days at sea on board the Oceana Latitude, we put into port in St. Petersburg after more than 150 miles of sailing and running away from a tropical storm that looked uglier as it got closer. For our luck, it turned east towards Florida’s eastern coast.
We barely had six campaign days left and Xavier Pastor decided that there was no more time left for on-board activities, so he gave us divers an order: “Put your stuff together, rent a pick-up and you have five days to earn your salary; you’ve been on board for days just “chilling” taking photos and filming on deck, and I got plenty of that already”
Oh, too bad for us! So what you’re saying is that we have five days to dive around Florida????
Well, if you want us to stay 10, 15 or 20 days, that’s fine, you know… If you give us some more time, we’ll find the Blackbeard’s treasure if you want, or did they find “dat” already?
OK, shoulders to the wheels. All the divers gather up, Thierry Lannois starts to look on maps, on the Internet, in books, Google… First option, going north to Crystal River to film manatees… But we’re out of season… “It doesn’t matter; there’ll be one around for sure… Now that we’re in Florida and want to film them, they won’t all disappear at once, right?”
(With Spanish accent) Hello, we want to dive tomorrow with the manatees. We would like to know what we have to do… First of all, you have to give me your credit card number…
That’s how everything works here in the States, heh…
After typing in those twenty digits, a pretty cool dive centre (Birds Underwater) explained to us that we’re out of season and that we had to be at Birds Underwater very early in the morning because at eleven the few manatees left in the area would swim out to feed elsewhere. The good news was that we were pretty much the only ones there and the “Oceana team members” were the only divers on the boat, along with a war veteran dressed on his dry suit and Nikon F3-equipped with an underwater cover, which he had received as a graduation present.
As far as I’m concerned, and after almost two months of campaigning on board the Oceana Ranger in the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico, and after driving almost 500 kilometres and only four hours of sleep (that’s the average sleep for Oceana’s campaigns, at least if you’re the video editor), at that point I don’t know any longer where I am, where the sea is by, where is north or south… I think it was already a miracle that I had made until the dive centre entrance, especially because it was still dark out there (it was 05:45 AM) and after having had “delicious” McBreakfast. Sorry, I’m from the Basque Country, I hate those restaurants… especially when you don’t know where to eat and you end up going to one of those again and again “because it’s all you know” and you end up just getting’ a completely different menu, because the McAuto guy makes you go nuts with so many choices and extras.
Oh yeah… so, about the diving thing:
Once we’re briefed, get some papers signed, watch a video explaining that you’re in a super-protected area, watch another video about another type of protection, have another meeting with the captain… (sorry, but I was brought up to be respectful and I only need one explanation to understand what one can and cannot do, and I think all this was too much already)… we get our equipment together and set sail at last…
The sun is rising, it is completely still, only the birds-waking-up sounds take up the whole area; the engine is turned-on and we start sailing through the calm waters of the marsh… I can honestly say that for the first time, after so much accumulated stress and lack of sleep, I had this incredible sense of peace… it was like having my batteries recharged in just a few minutes.
The captain, with 35 years of experience on the job, explained that in only a few weeks, there will be approximately 500 manatees in these waters. Today, with some luck, we’ll be able to see some. I see that we’re the first to leave the dock, while almost all the boats are still tied, so there won’t be an accumulation of boats out there today.
The landscape we see is somehow awkward. The canals through which we’re sailing, on one side, are bordered with luxury homes; one of them is especially luxurious, it’s John Travolta’s (actually it wasn’t furnished, in case any indoor designers are reading this), and on the other side, nature is just intact in its purest state.
We snorkel a bit and after “observing” a manatee with no visibility (in fact, I didn’t see the manatee until we bumped into each other), we tell Captain Nick that 100 manatees could be down there but we couldn’t film or take photographs with that poor visibility, so we head to a “crystal clear spring”… Crystal clear, huh?…
There you go! When I dive in, I realise the Captain was right and, on top of the wonderful visibility, the total absence of current makes you feel like you’re floating in space. So we start filming and, with this visibility and the fact that we’re diving without using tanks, it made us feel like in heaven!
We swim into the lagoon and since there are no manatees, we film the seabed, where a number of carps are swimming peacefully in these springs. I move closer to Carlos, who is fighting with a crab in front of his camera to picture it (you can see it in the video).
The spring is large and has many caves, so you can swim around as you want.
I feel something cool is coming… I see something big coming out the vegetation… What the heck is that? Oh! If it’s got a shell it must be a turtle, but it looks like escaped from Jurassic Park (you can see it on the video or in Carlos Minguell’s photographs), it’s a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)!!
We keep looking and after a while, I am lucky again and Jesus Molino, my dive buddy, points at some roots where something was moving.
I move closer and a river otter comes out of it (Lontra longicaudis) looking at me like “So, who are you?”… I try to swim after it but with just a couple of flips with its tail, it swims off 20 metres from me (us humans are so pathetic in the water, ha).
We stay in the lagoon a while longer and after an hour, we decide to move to another location; we agree that the reason we had driven 500 kilometres was to document manatees.
We are lucky, at one of the springs with a pretty good visibility, there is a small group with a mother and baby manatee. We had been told that when you see them in the water, you shouldn’t swim towards them, follow them or make noise… you simply have to stay calm and not to move, they’ll come to you to inspect you, and in a few seconds, you bond with them and sometimes they even ask you to scratch their belly.
I see the group of manatees start moving their fins and I’m still getting my camera out of the boat, but this is my chance! Instead of going towards the group, I swim 100 ahead in the direction I think they’re going to, then I wait… nothing… nothing….nothing…then… Bingo, here they come!
The mother comes first. I can hear how she nibbles on the seabed searching for algae to eat (we were told they can eat up to 60 kilos of algae a day). Here comes the baby. Hurry up, Gorka!! Diaphragm adjusted, focus, the balance is right… rec… I got them!!
Here comes another one! Cheese, that’s not a manatee, that’s Carlos Minguell!! He’s a good swimmer that guy! He’s the man! He was with the rest of the group a second ago and now he is right here!!
The baby seems to like us and dances around in front of us, until the mother comes to put some order and both of them swim off majestically, I look at Carlos and I see he has a huge smile on his face, I’m sure he’s got some good shots (have you seen them? Check’em out! they’re in the log and the photo gallery).
It’s 11:30AM. We run out of time to see the manatees. We leave with the feeling of wanting to see more, but as usual at Oceana, there’s no time or room for extras, and after saying goodbye to the dive centre guys, we load up the pick-up and set sail to… Wait, no! I forgot we were on land! We DRIVE 20 miles to our next dive spot: “Rainbow River”.
This is a resort offering a variety of aquatic activities. A captain is waiting for us on the dock with the boat, which would take us upstream so we can swim down with the current.
We dive in and the water is cold due to the several water springs. It’s interesting to observe them; they’re like little geysers between the rocks or in the sand.
The water is quite clean and from the bottom, I can see the treetops on one side of the river, as well as carps and other river fish (I still have to classify those), when all of a sudden, a cormorant (Phalacrocorax sp.) swims by us.
We continue swimming downstream barely moving our flippers, drove by the current and right before the end, we were able to document the “Alligator Gars” (Lepisosteus spatula) we had seen as we sailed up the river on the boat.
We reach our starting point, get out of the river and pick up our stuff. We have to bounce out! We’re 500 miles away from the Keys and we still have a seven hour drive trip back to the Latitude…