If you want to learn how to go kayaking with manatees, there are a few rules of thumb every paddler should hold close to his life vest. We all know that manatees are just plain cool. Their massive size often dwarfs that of a kayak, yet their gentle nature draws us in for a peek beneath the surface. As neutral observers whose very reason for kayaking usually includes observing marine life in its natural setting, paddlers are usually aware of the rules of kayaking with manatees. But in case you’re still a rookie, here are a few tips on how to kayak with manatees:
- Stick near the warm spots. As children, we knew that “warm spots” were something to stay clear of. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and you’ll find that warm spots usually bring an opportunity to kayak with manatees. Manatees don’t like cold water, and can freeze to death in prolonged cold temperatures (below 68 degrees Fahrenheit). So when it’s cooler out, kayaking in small, warmer bayous and rivers will increase the chances of finding manatees. Better yet, if your favorite route passes near a power plants where manatees flock in the wintertime, you’re almost sure to come upon a manatee.
- Head for the buffet. Manatees dine on sea grasses and plant leaves, so paddle to the grassy patches and hope for a sighting there. In areas like Tampa Bay, Florida, manatees can often be found grazing in herds all around the estuary’s grass-rich waters. These areas are often isolated from boat traffic due to environmental/habitat protection regulations or merely due to the shallow water levels, and are a fantastic destination for kayaking with manatees.
- Look for the footprint. Manatees come up for air about every fifteen to twenty minutes. That’s a lot of time under water, and enough time for oblivious kayakers to paddle over them without even a hint of their presence. If you’re observant, you’ll see their “footprint” on the surface of the water: a smooth flat circle of water that results from the turning, rolling, paddling actions of the manatees down below. Stick around long enough near the footprint, and you’ll almost assuredly see a couple of nostrils emerge for air in a few minutes.
- Stay clear. Though manatees are gentle, herbivorous mammals, they are large—especially females—and they usually don’t travel alone. When females are in estrus, they’ll often join up with a mating herd of males, and these interactions can become rough enough to unseat a naïve kayaker who has the misfortune—and lack of intelligence—to float above such a group. Their sheer size can also cause accidental tail or body bumps to your craft, which can toss any kayaker into the drink. When you consider that run-ins with boat hulls or propellers are one of the top killers of manatees, you can understand the potential for a bump—albeit, a non-deadly one—in your kayak. So when kayaking with manatees in groups, stay at a safe distance.
- Don’t contribute to the problem. Due to their declining numbers, manatees are listed as threatened or endangered on species conservation lists. Considering that one of their main threats results from interaction with humans, it goes without saying that kayakers shouldn’t try to interact with them. Besides being illegal, feeding or harassment of manatees can contribute to injury or death. So as a responsible kayaker—and environmental steward—look, but don’t touch. Kayaking alongside the manatee can be a rich and rewarding experience in and of itself; there's no need to draw the manatee to your kayak for a treat or jump in the water and scare them away from their feeding grounds.
Kayaking can bring any nature lover to a zen-like state of peace and comfort. Kayaking with manatees, however, can elevate that experience to one of almost magical status. Keep your eyes open and your paddles up, and some day, you might be treated to a lazy paddle with one of nature’s most unique mammals.