There was a young man in the muddy spring waters, doing what looked to be aquatic tai chi. The spring was closed because of the flooding and the presence of the manatees. Due to January’s record chill, there had been 441 manatee sightings, a sure sign that the climate was undergoing a big and disastrous change. Adequate signage was provided to warn visitors that the springs were closed for swimming (and, presumably, tai chi) but the young man had paid those no heed. As soon as we left the boardwalk, we saw him. He was standing waist-deep in the water. Above him, a cluster of people watched from a small bridge.
When we got closer, we saw a manatee a few feet in front of the guy. He moved his arms through the water and crept towards the creature, which was floating near the surface. The guy made a quick flash of his hands and the manatee swam off. The guy then hopped back up to land, soaking wet, pulled his shirt on, and joined a group of young people who had been watching his water ballet.
In my new and self-appointed role as unofficial park ranger, I went over to investigate, only to be confronted with a baby turtle. The group of young people had taken both it and a young watersnake from the springs. These they were passing around the circle for the purpose of taking pictures. When I got closer, the guy who had been in the water thrust the snake forward and asked me if I wanted to hold it. He explained that the young people were biology students from Canada. I got the impression that he himself was not. He was just the person who was going to jump in the water to try to catch a manatee?
The students were very excited about the snake. They hadn’t been able to identify it “at first” but had evidently picked it up anyway, and had done so in a place where it could easily have been a cottonmouth (which watersnakes resemble). They had moved both turtle and snake from their habitats.
I could have left this alone, but I didn’t. Instead, I went to find a park ranger, but the ranger, who appeared to be the same age as the kids, said they had permission. I’d thought manatees were protected by state law from human idiocy, but in this instance I suppose the law was being waived for the sake of higher learning. It didn’t sit well with me, but I said nothing. I do want to go back to the park.
Still, the experience left me unnerved. If student groups are allowed that close an encounter with nature, then why doesn’t the State of Florida insist on a chaperone in the form of a wildlife biologist? I’m all for hands-on education, but I don’t think I’d go to Africa or Australia and pick up their native wildlife while in pursuit of a B. S. in biology. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I blame daredevil nature shows for the casualness with which these kids exposed themselves to the local environment. The park ranger thought I was a busybody; he told me that the kids had permission to handle snakes and turtles as they saw fit. All this meant to me was that they wouldn’t be arrested. It didn’t mean they wouldn’t be bitten, stung, or unable to file multi-million-dollar lawsuits against the state when they were.You can just about make out a manatee below the surface of the water.
Come back Monday for more adventures ’round about rural Florida, featuring this stranger my companion calls “Wilderness Sue.” Who is she, and can we please send her back to the mall where she belongs?