Manatees, up close and personal in Fort Myers

Manatee sign at the Port Sanibel Marina

Before we visited southwest Florida I had no idea what a rich area it is for viewing wildlife of many different varieties. Whether you want to see marine mammals, migratory birds, or alligators, the Fort Myers/Sanibel Island area is the place to go – in fact, there are so many animals that you don’t even have to be outside to see them. Our wildlife sightings started the first morning of our trip when we all watched for about ten minutes as a pod of dolphins cavorted past the window of our suite at the Pink Shell Resort, which overlooked the glorious pink and blue water of the Gulf of Mexico. Now there are no dolphins in this picture – I didn’t want to stop watching to get my camera in the bedroom. But this was our view; just picture the foreground peppered with dolphins and you’ll get the idea:

Gulf of Mexico seen from the Pink Shell Resort

According to the friendly locals on the beach, we also saw an unusually large number of stingrays and jellyfish in the waters along Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island. To Floridians these animals were probably a less welcome sight, but Tommy and Teddy were excited to share the water with animals that they had previously only seen behind the glass of aquarium tanks.

And let us not forget the arachnids. Subtropical Florida is home to an impressive number of spiders whose size belies the fact that they are harmless to humans:

Spider in the mangrove forest

Matt was perhaps a little less fascinated than the rest of us.

Matt sees a spider in the mangrove forest

But the most impressive and memorable experience of our trip had to be when we were paddling in two double kayaks from Adventures in Paradise in Fort Myers. We left from the Port Sanibel Marina, and headed out into the several miles of silky smooth paddling trails in the Punta Rassa Cove, which lies between Pine Island, Sanibel Island, and the mainland. The trails include the opportunity for spying birds and dolphins in the open lagoons and bays as well as the chance to follow tidal creeks lined with mangroves, mysterious and sulphurous places that were unlike anything I’d ever seen or experienced. Although Matt and I are far from expert kayakers, we found the trails clearly marked and easy to navigate. Tommy even managed to do an impressive amount of the paddling.

Before we left the marina we were advised to keep an eye out for the manatees who were hanging out in a cove surrounded incongruously enough by yachts in dry dock and their corresponding mansions. The cove was clearly marked on the map and sure enough, as soon as we arrived we saw the telltale wakes of several very large animals. For a while we paddled cautiously around each other, the manatees’ noses appearing occasionally in the water, always at a distance of at least ten feet.

But then as Tommy and I floated, scanning the water, a large gray mound rose up right next to our kayak. It disappeared for just a moment, reappearing on the other side of our boat. I could feel the bulk of the animal’s body pressing against us, not in a threatening way, but as if it were nudging us along. Matt and Teddy paddled over in time to see the face of an enormous manatee as it stuck its nose up to push our kayak with its head. Our kayak moved forward as gently as if a breeze had pushed us. My heart raced. Tommy reached down and put his hand on the animal’s back. It dove under our kayak again, teasingly. In that suspended moment there was nothing but dark green water, the blue sky, the four of us, and this animal, reaching out across the boundary of language and environment to say hello. “It feels kind of slimy!” Tommy crowed. “And then scaly, like dinosaur skin.”

It was utterly thrilling. We later learned from Craig Stewart, the owner of Adventures in Paradise, that the majority of kayakers (he said 8 out of 10) have some kind of interaction with the manatees who love to come out and play with the boats.

If I ever needed a reason to believe in the connection between humans and other species of animal, I now had one. And I know that all four of us will be dreaming of that moment for a long time to come.

What about you? Any dreams of your own on this fine Monday? If you’ve got a link to share, please enter it below, making sure that your post links back here. Questions? See About Monday Dreaming.

Many thanks to the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau for covering most of the costs of our trip and to the Pink Shell Resort for giving us a suite with that view. Thanks also to Craig Stewart of Adventures in Paradise for providing us with the kayaks, life vests, maps, and lots of background on the area. And of course to the manatees. Look for upcoming posts about our adventures in the Fort Myers/Sanibel area including encounters with roseate spoonbills, which birder-in-training Teddy was determined to spot.

Reader Responses

16 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. Such a trip, Mara – I grew up on Florida’s gulf coast. The manatees were like my backyard pets. I’m sure anyone who grew up in a tourist-magnet will say this, but it’s so strange to see anyone write about it – it was always just normal for us. Next time you head to Florida, here’s some Florida wildlife wisdom for you (that every kid who grows up in Florida knows): you ever find yourself fixin’ to get chased by a gator, you run in zig zags, ’cause gators’ brains are too dang small to keep up. :D Glad you had such a nice time!

  2. Wish we’d seen a manatee — instead of that spider’s brother!

    So glad you all enjoyed your trip!!

    xoxoxo

  3. Florida’s got a so much cool stuff that most vacationers who hang by the pool miss out on. I’ve written about Wakulla Springs State Park up in near Tallahassee, where I learned that gator-running trick from one of the rangers. (Since I was wearing a toddler in a backpack that day and the mating gators were doing lots of bellowing, we called off that hike.) Wakulla is Old Florida–mysterious, wild, atmospheric. But I like New Florida too, especially the Gulf Coast, where we visit my grandmother in Naples at least once a year and see the rays near the shore in the mornings. In the summer, we’ve even helped dig sea turtle hatchlings out of their nests with staffers from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. And if you go again, consider checking out Corkscrew Swamp. It has panthers.

  4. Hi sweet Mara!

    This is a great scary boy-dream. I’ll bet your boys (and Matt) loved every nano-second!

    Today, I’m dreaming of Europe… in spite of the terror warnings.

  5. Hilarious…and beautiful, too! Now I’m even more bummed I had to miss out on this trip. I mean, really — lagoon-side strolls? Kayaking with manatees? Giant spiders?

    Wait — what was that last part, again? :)

  6. This is something I’m longing to do — with or without kids! In fact, traveling to see wild animals in their natural habitat is my dream vacation (yes, for real!). These types of trips have been shelved since having kids, but the time is coming for me to get back out there. Thanks for the reminder!

  7. What a great post and an amazing experience. It reminds me of the time my husband and I saw a huge turtle while scuba-diving in Thailand, it was so slow and graceful, just breathtakingly beautiful.

    Loving the picture of Matt! That’s exactly how my husband looks after seeing a spider! :)

  8. Now dreaming of Thailand generally and the sunsets in particular…. I’ve found a few photos and have posted them to my blog.

    http://www.lovebabylovetravel.com/dreaming-of-thai-sunsets/

  9. Liv – I’ll remember that tip about the alligators should we ever return. We did see the rear end of one on Sanibel, but he was definitely trying to get away from us.

    Kara, Melanie, and Anna – we saw about four of those spiders and it completely wigged Matt out. He’s pretty phobic. I wish I had a picture of him doing the limbo under one of the webs.

    Liz – Thanks for the tip – panthers are one animal we didn’t see. I’ll add that to the list.

    Monna – I’m so very happy to see you here my friend. I share your Monday dream so utterly, you don’t even know.

    Debi – I actually thought of you quite a bit while we were on this trip – the area would be perfect for you and your family. There is a staggering amount of wildlife on view. And yet you can also stay in a comfortable condo or hotel room right on the beach. Here’s to getting back out there my friend.

  10. Mara, this sounds amazing! My husband and I (both former white water kayakers) have started sea kayaking a bit with the boys. those double kayaks are so much fun. On one trip, we saw orcas off Orcas Island, Washington, but your manatee experience sounds much, much cooler. Now if only I could get my husband to Florida….

  11. I have a really cool video of manatees from my canal at my house on Marco Island,in SW Florida.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBL6HBr4Km0

    It shows 4 different ones on 2 different days.One is a baby(about 4 feet long).

  12. I have seen far too many of those spiders in person, growing up in Mobile, AL. No matter how many times someone tells me they are harmless, I am still absolutely terrified of them.

    There are some places you can go to and sign up to swim with manatees. My friend did it a few months ago for his birthday – one of the best birthdays ever, he said.

  13. i swam with a manatee off of captiva island island today.

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