I just got back from a short trip to the Bahamas and Florida with my oldest two daughters – an opportunity for us to do a little scuba diving and snorkeling in warmer waters.
I usually like to put aside my ‘inner gardener’ when I go on vacation, as I have found that my botanical obsessions can get a little distracting at times.
While we enjoyed exploring a shipwreck, snorkeling Deadman’s Reef and delving into underwater caves, the highlight was swimming with the manatees at Crystal Springs, Fla.
For those of you not familiar with these gentle creatures, also known as sea cows, they over-winter in coastal estuaries with warm thermal springs.
We were on a boat at dawn traveling down a river with houses and gardens built right to water’s edge, which was quite the opposite of the pristine riparian environment I had imagined it to be.
Even as we donned our masks and slipped into the still, dark waters, I didn’t quite believe that any wildlife would inhabit these crowded bays.
We quietly made our way to what looked like someone’s backyard pool (complete with slide), which was only separated from the main waterway with a floating boom.
Once inside, our guide quietly reminded us of the rules (no touching unless the manatees initiate contact, no flash photography, no talking and no walking on the river bed, just float and enjoy the view), then he left us to our observations.
There were 19 manatees in this small pool, ranging from large 13-foot males to eight-ft. juveniles.
Most were curled up, sleeping on the river bottom – every five minutes they would float up to the surface, take a breath, then gently sink down to their slumbers.
Given the tight quarters, I was actually pushed aside by several manatees ascending to breathe and they paid me no more mind than we would, brushing aside a blanket.
As the sun rose, they became more active and I was able to watch the babies nurse, see them groom each other with their suction-like mouths and even walk on the river bottom their flippers.
The juveniles are very curious, and one barnacle-encrusted baby (the barnacles fall off about a week after they enter fresh water) took an interest in me. He or she floated right up to my face and had a good long look at me with eyes that said, ‘What are you,’ and ‘What are you doing in my home?’
It was a bit of an epiphany to be brushed aside when you are in the way and be confronted with a true intelligence that informed me that I was imposing on their world.
On the boat trip back, I noticed that much of the river inlet was fenced in and I asked why. The guide informed us that fertilizer runoff (nitrates and phosphates) from the adjacent gardens and citrus farms were causing algae to grow over and kill the aquatic grass beds, which was the manatees’ only food source. The fenced-in areas had been dredged and replanted in hopes of recovering the lost habitat.
This got me to thinking about our own fertilizer habits, in particular the proliferation of those shaker containers or ready-to-use hose-end sprayers that are marketed for use over the entire garden.
These wasteful products always lead to fertilizer run-off, which lands up in our streams and rivers, harming local salmon stocks and, in turn, affecting our marquee marine mammal, the killer whale.
So use a little less fertilizer, because your lawn and garden really don’t need the excess.
Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author (firstname.lastname@example.org).