Not at all related to Middle Eastern dance, but this is a big deal in my world – anyone who’s anyone knows that my marine biology geekdom knows no bounds.

I just came back from sunny Florida, where my boyfriend Stacy and I banged out a little bit of house-hunting, some much-needed R&R, and most importantly, a celebration of our one-year anniversary together. Just to backtrack a year, I crossed paths with Stacy entirely by accident – I was in the market to try a pinup-style photo shoot, came across this one local guy’s mind-blowing work on the internet, and somehow ended up becoming instant best friends with him in the process of booking and planning our shoot. It was obvious that our preliminary conversations had taken us somewhere beyond the scope of a camera and some bright lights. We ended up going out a couple of times, and the rest is history – six weeks later, we finally had our scheduled photo shoot!

Since Stacy and I did not meet under “normal” circumstances, we didn’t celebrate our anniversary with a garden-variety candlelit dinner, a Hallmark card and some sort of token that comes in a certain robin’s-egg blue box. We decided to spend our anniversary with the manatees!

Experts say that manatees (unlike myself) are most active in the early hours of the morning – usually around 6 a.m. They stuff their wiskery faces with algae all morning, then take long, leisurely siestas by noon. For us, this meant waking up at 3 a.m. to trek from Orlando to Crystal River, where the algae is plentiful and the living is easy for our favorite gentle giants. Oof. Even by the time we got on the dive boat and suited up in our wetsuits, it was still dark outside. It was early. Everyone on the boat was rather bleary eyed and silly, but stoked.

Our captain John had this kinda Jeff Foxworthy thing going on. “Anyone know what a mullet is?” he asked. “A really bad hairstyle?” replied one of our new dive buddies, who was also from Connecticut. Though bi-level hairdos are ubiquitous in small rural areas of Florida, our guide was referring to the species of fish – there was a trio of bottlenose dolphins right in front of our boat, working in perfect synchronicity to hunt down a school of mullet. One dolphin would wait with his mouth open while his buddies would circle erratically to get the frenzied fish to jump into the waiting dolphin’s mouth. Though we all would have loved to jump in the water with the dolphins, our guide didn’t want us to disturb the dolphins’ natural feeding behaviors. It really was amazing to see the ingenuity of dolphins at work.

Shortly after being dazzled by dolphins, we began to see the telltale signs of manatees: “footprints” on the surface of the water, the sound of deep exhalations, and the tips of their wiskery snouts popping out of the water. It was time to dive in. Giddy up!

The first several minutes in the water was both terrifying and frustrating. Though the water was only 5 feet deep, it was so green and murky that you couldn’t see the bottom. Your imagination runs wild – even a 15-foot alligator would be perfectly concealed in that creepy water! Though the manatees were obviously not far away, you couldn’t see them. After 15 minutes of aimless doggie-paddling through the pea soup, I really wasn’t having fun.

Then, I heard a loud snorting noise behind me. Stacy grabbed my leg: “Lisa! It’s here! Go underwater now! A manatee popped up right behind you!”

I looked down and saw the most enormous gray mass right in front of me. Though it was the cutest, most cuddly looking animal you could possibly imagine, I also felt like I saw the Loch Ness Monster – the manatee was bigger than a car and had this looming presence underwater. It just kind of hovered there. I popped my head up, wide-eyed, and exclaimed: “Holy SH*T it’s big!!!!!” Then I dove back down.

The manatee was so docile and inquisitive. I reached out and touched its back and its tail. Wow. It felt like an elephant with a coating of algae. Though the animal was so enormous and its skin was tough, I was almost afraid to hurt it. Its back was covered with scars from boat propellers, and it was easy to see why the state of Florida has so many laws in place to protect these endangered beauties from careless boaters. I couldn’t believe it just hung out there and let me scratch its back like a big puppy dog. You could even hear it munching on algae. Awwww! After a moment of checking out its new human friends, the adorable leviathan disappeared into the murky water, leaving us all awestricken by its beauty and gentleness. This is something I’ll remember forever.

The ecotourism industry has its outspoken opponents. They say it’s best to let the animals be; that human interaction does more harm than good. While I’d have to agree that companies that run whale watches, dolphin swims and similar excursions should do everything in their power to be non-intrusive and to not disturb the animal’s natural behaviors, I also think the greatest disservice we can do to the future of our world’s oceans is to take away these opportunities to foster compassion, respect and understanding of the ocean’s most beautiful and fascinating creatures. For instance, I’d always seen manatees on TV and in the aquarium, but none of those experiences had quite prepared me for the incredible size, beauty and gentleness of these animals. It makes me want to do what I can to help keep manatees on our planet for future generations to appreciate, protect and enjoy. I think if everybody got to observe and interact with animals in their natural habitats, we might take a more watchful and protective approach toward the creatures with whom we share our planet.

I can’t wait to go back to the Crystal River this winter, when the water will be crystal blue and manatees will be plentiful. Hopefully I’ll even get my SCUBA cert by then.

For those who live in Florida or plan to vacation there, my boyfriend and I highly recommend these guys: http://www.manateetoursusa.com/. They supply all the gear you need and you will leave your manatee tour with such an appreciation for Florida’s most precious endangered species. To learn more about manatees and what you can do to help protect them, check out the great informative site, SaveTheManatees.org.

What Do You Think About All This?