The town of Crystal River, Florida sits at the mouth of its namesake ninety miles north of Tampa. The river empties into the Gulf of Mexico where its mouth widens into a brackish bay rimmed with marinas, waterside homes and canals reaching back toward land. These channels have long attracted sea cows, these days known as manatees.
The local economy of Crystal River feeds off the presence of these large, watergoing mammals. They are a tourist attraction in nearly all seasons, with tour boats taking curious adventurers out in the bay on warm summer days to peek at manatees in their natural habitat.
Some people don’t get it
But people left to their own devices sometimes fail to grasp the impact of human contact with a such seemingly benign beast. And in some Florida locations, people seek to love them a bit too much. In a story reported on Smithsonian.com, “As Florida native Ryan William Waterman just learned, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission takes its manatee safety seriously. After posting several photos on Facebook of himself and his two young daughters playing with a baby manatee, Reuters reports, the authorities arrested him. According to the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, it is illegal to molest, harass, disturb or—as Waterman found out—hug a manatee. Federal laws also protect the species, which is listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s Red List.”
The eager father didn’t just touch a baby manatee. He lifted it out of the water, posed his daughter sitting on its back, and then returned it to the water. Wildlife officials noted that the animal was experiencing what appeared to be cold stress from having been removed from its native habitat.
Don’t abuse the manatees
The Florida Wildlife Commission website describes the consequences of abusing manatees. “Manatees are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. It is illegal to feed, harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, annoy, or molest manatees. The state of Florida has also established regulatory speed zones to protect the manatee and its habitat. The zones are located where manatees live or travel regularly or seasonally. Anyone convicted of violating state law faces maximum fines of $500 and/or imprisonment of up to 60 days. Conviction for violating federal protection laws is punishable by fines up to $100,000 and/or one year in prison.”
There seems to be a general respect regarding safety of the animals near Crystal River. Motorized craft cruising out from the canals make their way slowly through No Wake zones. Between them, a daily flow of of vacationing kayakers paddles around a point in the bay to reach a once-secluded clearwater springs called Three Sisters, a massively popular tourist attraction.
Rush hour at Three Sisters
The water in the spring is indeed Crystal Clear. But kayaking into the pool on a summer day is like navigating a rush hour intersection on the Gold Coast of Chicago. Kayak traffic bottlenecks at the entrance of Three Sisters where three or four embedded stanchions force people to navigate between them. Those impediments keep people from ramming into each other. Inside the lagoon people run their boats up against the shore despite signs posted by the National Wildlife Refuge system not to do so. They also stand on rocks below the surface despite other signs warning them not to do so. The smell of cigarettes wafts across the water as families parked on large super rafts roll about laughing and talking at the top of their lungs.
Girls laced up in stringy swimsuits with naked butt cheeks mix with rotund men in soaked tee shirts lolling about uncomfortably in colorful kayaks. A few handsome young paddleboarders make their way into the cove as well. There are people of every nationality and language chattering away as if the crystal waters were nothing more than a local suburban swimming pool. Of course, there is not a manatee to be seen.
On the first trip up the canal leading to Three Sisters, my wife and I missed the entrance. We paddled past the large waterside homes to a place where the clear water grew quite still. Even the sea breeze did not reach back into those spaces. It was quiet for the most part, with a few other kayaks sitting calmly as couples talked quietly. One noted that they’d actually seen a water moccasin snake a few meters back. At the far end of the canal we paddled through a u-shaped culvert beneath a local street. Finally the canal hit a dead end behind a Mobil station. Such is the condition of nature in the State of Florida.
That twenty-minute period of paddling was the most peace to be found during a two-hour paddle trip. But on our way out of the canal we approached a family of mixed ages piling off their kayaks and rafts to swim in the water. They paid no attention to our approach, neither the young or old, including one intrepid little spright with water wings and a lifesaving vest.
We waited patiently for them to cross the canal and slipped between the next round. A young father or uncle among them exclaimed how warm the water had gotten where they were swimming. In most pools, we know what that means. Someone just pissed in the water. But this warmth was likely the product of the sun striking the water at that point in the canal. Things warm up quickly in that case. That is one of the reasons why the manatees like the canals during seasons when the surrounding waters generally get cooler. Apparently one of the most popular manatee winter resting spots is the cooling pond nuclear power plant up the coast. The animals reportedly show up by the hundreds, bumping one another as they share the warmth.
All along the canal where we paddled there were manatee protection signs at almost every residence warning boats to drive at a slow speed. There were also signs instructing swimmers to stay off the stone walls rimming the canals because those were private property.
At the moment we paddled past those stone walls, the young father or uncle swimming around with the kids clambered onto the edge of one of the walls with one hand. He was likely bracing himself afloat to support one of the tadpole swimmers of which he was suddenly in charge. All of the family members bore shiny black hair and brown skin. Their accents suggested a Latino origin of some sort.
Suddenly a voice roared from a bit further down the canal. “Stay off the walls!” a man hollered. “That’s private property!”
The young man quickly hollered an obscenity back at the man. The approaching kayaker was clearly a man in at least his sixties with white hair and wrinkling pale skin. He paddled urgently toward the swimmers with a spaniel perched on the front of the boat. “I will take your head off with this oar!” he yelled ahead.
“I will mess you up, bitch!” the young man screamed back. The invectives continued as we paddled toward bay. There was no empathy from either side of the argument.
It was fair to assume that the man with the dog on his kayak was a local resident looking after the rights of those who live on the canal. His job would have been endless that day in August, because there were thousands of people on the move, a watery rabble one might say, paddling in and out of that canal and the Three Sisters lagoon.
It all makes for a lawless environment as a whole. There are no lifeguards inside the cove. There is no one monitoring boat traffic in or out of the canal. A motorized pontoon boat even traversed the narrow waterways where children swam. Out in the bay, there was a local sheriff out checking boat licenses . But he was busy with the big stuff, not paying attention to the little stuff taking place in the smaller channels.
Flags of glory
Many of the pontoons and motorboats parked along the canal wars bore large TRUMP 2020 flags. One lone craft bore a pair of Anti-Trump flags mounted to the back. One wonders if those neighbors are friendly with one another or not. It hardly seems likely.
The entire scene was a manic mix of American freedoms and personal rights. Like so many American waterways and streets and alleys in America, the nation is currently running on premises of vigilante justice.
That is why the conflict between the angry kayaker and the defiant swimmer escalated so quickly, and was so jarring to witness. It seemed a microcosm of everything wrong with America right now. The white guy clearly approached the situation too aggressively. That elicited an equally disrespectful response from the Latino guy swimming with his little relatives. Both felt they were protecting something dear to them. Yet both were in some respect exhibiting behavior that was immensely out of line with the scope of the situation. But everyone was somehow trying to make a point, and everyone was losing in the process.
That type of overwrought reaction seems to describe the American scene as a whole. The environment at Crystal River is uniquely symbolic of how American consumerism mixed with self-centered recreation, rabid patriotism, and abuse of the environment combine to create a warlike atmosphere even in the most historically significant of places.
We paddled back to return our kayaks only to find two women in black and white swimsuits standing waist deep in front of the beach where a batch of young men waited for us to return our little crafts. The two women seemed oblivious to the fact that they were standing right in the way of a commercial enterprise trying to do business. Neither of them wore a mask, either. Their arms were crossed and their expressions showed concern over some topic they were discussing. This selfish lack of self-awareness seems to be rampant in the world today. It happens at grocery stores where people focused on choosing green beans ignore other customers. It happens on the roads where drivers putz along in the left lane determinedly unconcerned that their presence impedes all other traffic. And it happens in the Congress and Senate where politicians preoccupied with their own ideologies refuse to turn an ear to anyone else.
So we sat idling in our kayaks for a couple minutes as the women stood hip deep in the water. We hoped they would notice that we were trying to come ashore, but after watching the kayak guy flip out at the swimmers back in the canal, our appetite for confrontation of any kind was gone. Thus we sat there patiently until someone trying to launch their kayak from shore less than politely asked them to move out of the way. Faced with the nose of a plunging kayak, they did move a few feet to the side. That’s when we quickly paddled our boats ashore. This is what America has come to. We’re all daily witnesses to casual abuse by force selfish distraction.
That’s the same force of will that once produced motorboat gashes in the backs of manatees swimming innocently in the canals of Crystal River. The laws passed to protect them actually serve to protect people from themselves in this world. There’s a vital lesson for America in that bit of history.
Manatees and the law
On shore, we returned the laminated bay map to the the kayak workers on shore. The back of the card also contained warnings against touching or abusing manatees in any manner. “Do not jump on their backs,” the card stated. “That has happened.” The card also listed a number of other stupid things that people have done to manatees over the years. Those antics were clearly the behavior of people acting selfishly and without regard for the well-being of the manatees. Like the man who dragged the baby manatee ashore, there are so many people in this world stuck in their own frame of reference it is getting difficult to know who can be trusted to act with civility, and who cannot.
Too many people assume that the law does not apply to them. Or, they believe it is their right to interpret the law according to their own selfish terms. Some folks seem to think that the act of flying a flag or defending a wall entitles them to act out their aggressions. The same goes for wearing a badge or claiming some status; be it race, religion or nationality, that confers them special status.
On the other front, there are many people taking insult too quickly. Some assume that prejudice is automatically at work and that a genuine threat is at hand when some of what goes on in this world is the direct product of cultural misunderstanding. Identity is one of the most powerful of all emotions, and when those come in conflict with each other, look out. It is all the product of human tribalism, and the craftiest of politicians know how to leverage those forces to gain votes and popularity.
That is why the nation is at such risk right now. If people can’t understand something as basic as leaving a peaceful manatee alone in its element, we are doomed to behave like ugly brutes on land as well. This is particularly true when our leaders can think of nothing better to do than make fun of the appearance of a creature such as a manatee rather than appreciate the wonder and uniqueness of their existence. But that’s where we’ve come in the last five years, and America as a concept is sinking as a result. When people feel powered to disavow the need for decorum, driven forward by inspiration from people with ugly spirits and angry hearts, it’s not just the manatees that are at risk. It is all of us.