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Hey, it's Michael. Today, we have something really special for you, a blissful break from the news. It's a news series from NYT Audio called Animal. My colleague, Sam Anderson, from the Times magazine, traveled the world to have encounters with animals, not to claim them or to tame them, but just to appreciate them. Each episode is a journey to get closer to a creature that Sam loves. For the next six weeks, we'll be running this limited series every Sunday here on the Daily Feed. But if you want to hear all the episodes right now, you can search for it wherever you get your podcasts. Today, episode 3. Hope you enjoy it.


From the New York Times, This is Animal. I'm Sam Anderson. Episode 3 Manities. All right. Good morning. How are you?


Hey. Hey. All right. How about yourself? You good. You picked a great day. I know. What are the rules on that? Yeah, the rain's not an issue. It's the lightning. And I got a I have this app on my phone here. We definitely have some lightning, but it's their call, obviously. But I'm not comfortable going out if there's a lot of lightning. You don't want to be on the water during the lightning. But So you all booked a private tour? Yes, ma'am. Yeah, okay.


It's Kelsey.


Yeah, I think Kelsey is going to join us. She just texted me-For some reason, I do not fully understand.


I've always wanted to get in the with a manatee. A manatee is a big pudgy, blubby-looking, I don't know, cross between a walrus and a potato. Sometimes people call them sea cows because they basically just float around grazing. But they're a lot weirder looking than cows. They have these funny little flippers, boomerang-shaped flippers up that they use to navigate around, and then this big flat paddle of a tail, like a super beaver or something. They eat wet vegetables, sea grass mainly, almost never aggressive. They float outside all of these cycles of predators and prey and doing stuff. They just float there. I want to float outside all of those cycles and just not worry about deadlines and meetings and whatever. It's stressful out there. But not under the water. Looks like they're sending people out.


Yeah, they'll be watching the weather.


Okay. When I think about getting in the water with a manate, I don't know exactly what I want to But when I really try to imagine it, I think what I want is for a manate to look at me. I want to see a manate seeing me. I want to look at a manate, and I want the manate to look back at me, and I just want to have a moment of connection or whatever it is. People said they were ugly. Now, manatees are a protected species, and the only place I know of in the United States where you can legally swim with manatees is a place in Florida called Crystal River. I'd heard about that place from watching the classic manatee documentary made by Jacques Cousteau back in the 1970s Jacques Cousteau and his whole crew of French oceanographers with their little red beanies, they have a local guide, and it's a kid, a teenager named Buddy Powell. This is you in your element.


Yeah, this is my element.


Buddy Powell is actually still there. In the decade since, he's become maybe the preeminent manatee scientist in the world. He's the director of a big marine center not far from Crystal River. He occasionally will still take people around Crystal River, where he grew up, as he did for Jacques Cousteau. What is this? This is viability, assumption of risk. We arranged a private boat tour with Buddy Powell, me and my colleague, Kaitlyn Roberts, who is there with the microphone. Let's see if they sit to cover alligators. Buddy's PR person, Kelsey, is going to join us, too. She's running a little late.


Okay, not here yet. She's close, though.


All right, guys. We're going to go ahead and get started. Kaitlyn and I had actually been in Florida for about a week before the swimming day, crisscrossing the state, talking to various manatee experts, getting ready for that moment when I get in the water and have an encounter. Everyone here is for 10:15, correct? Yes. Once you start, as soon as you start learning about manatees, things get pretty heavy because from a distance, manatees make me very happy, and I find them very soothing. Manatees, I don't think experience life that way, which we found out very quickly. The refreshing water we have out on the bay. We talked to a guy who works with the Save the Manatee Club, and he paddles around in his canoe, and he recognizes all the manatees by their scars, by the damage that they've taken. So manatees are... They're huge animals. They float slowly and often right near the surface. And so when When a speed boat comes ripping through, often it will hit a manatee. And getting hit by a speed boat is basically like getting hit by a truck that has swords all over it. So he's seen manatees sliced up so badly, they don't have tails or hit so hard by a boat that their ribs are sticking out.


Just the worst of the worst. He also told us some really freaky stories about alligators that I'm not going to get into right now.


But you'll need to get wetsuits and snorkeling gear here. Okay. Just rent it. Then you'll need to watch a video. Okay. Manate Manners.


Manate Manners. Okay. Okay. Where else do we go? We went to this pathology lab in Tampa, where they actually do autopsies on every manate that turns up dead in Florida to figure out the reasons why. They've been seeing a huge increase in the number of manatees that are coming in. Sometimes it's just days on end, 8, 9, 10 manatees, and when they open up the door the next day, it's just that many manatees again, and it's just nonstop. The boat strikes. There's something called red tide, which is a algae that blooms in the water under certain conditions and makes manatees drown. Then lately, they've been seeing something really horrible, which is a new front in this crisis, which is starvation. Finding manatees with sand in their stomachs because they're just desperately rooting around, trying to find any bits that they can eat. Because the water quality has become so bad these huge sea grass meadows where manatees have been feeding for hundreds and thousands of years are dying off. And so they go there to eat and it's just fields of sand.


Can we Can we get out on the boat? You got to watch the...


Oh, we have to watch Manatee Manors? Yeah. Welcome to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and the Kings Bay Manatee Refuge. I kept asking these experts, How do you deal with this emotionally? Is it hard? Do you cry? The following activities, or the attempt to perform any of the following activities, is prohibited throughout Kings Bay. Chasing or pursuing a manatee. A lot of them were able to have a scientific detachment. They're just really trying to diagnose what's wrong and help as best they can. Cornering or surrounding a manate. But I remember one guy I spoke with. He surprised me a little bit. I said, Do you have hope for the future of manatees? Hoking, frotting, or stabbing a manatee with anything, including your hands and feet. And he said, Deep in my heart, no. Standing or stepping on a manatee. Come on down. But he said, Deep in his heart, no. But he still hopes. Separating a mother and cat or separating a manatee. He also He said, If we can't save manatees, we can't save anything because manatees are so resilient. They have really tough skin that's hard to cut. They have very fast coagulation in their blood, so their wounds heal very quickly, which is how they're able to survive so many of these boat strikes.


If we can't find a way to keep manatees alive, then we're not going to be able to save anything. Ready? Let's do it. I'm ready. Another business. Thank you. Thank you. Oh, who's got? I know. To be honest, that makes me hate us for wanting to swim with manatees. Well, the people that don't follow the regulations. Yeah, but even us and our stupid wetsuits floating around in the crowds of people staring at the man. It's just like, Shut the whole thing down. Well, hopefully people will feel a sense of awe and want to protect them, right? Yeah. I guess that's the risk-benefit ratio you have to weigh. How much does this increase people's awareness and affection, and therefore lead to protection and all that? How much does it bother the manatees and mess up the environment? Yeah, exactly. That's why there has to be also a lot of regulation on the tour guides, too. After we signed all of our forms and squeezed into our wetsuits and watched this video, we stepped outside and the sky had cleared miraculously, and we got ready to step on this boat where Buddy was going to drive us around and hopefully make my stupid manatee dream come true.


Why don't we go over to the boat and then we can get after you.


So you can go back in there.


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Have you done one of these before How does it work, sir? I have. Okay, so you understand that stream of water that needs to come out of the side of that motor at all times.


What to do- Buddy Powell, the local guide.


If you're ready to go, I'll get you on hook. All right.


Thanks a lot. Thanks a lot. Gets us in our boat, and we toodle off into the water. This is where you grew up.


This is where I grew up. I was actually born in Clearwater, but my family had a little fishing cottage up here.


And I wanted to know all about his Jacques Cousteau experience and what that was like. Were you aware of Jacques Cousteau at this point in your life?


Oh, yeah. Back in the day when we only had three channels, you would wait. When they come out four times a year or twice a year. It was a big deal to watch that show. So obviously, very much a role model.


To be a kid who loved nothing more than being in a boat, who had memorized all the creatures that lived in this habitat that he grew up in, to get a call from Jacques Cousteau in the 1970s, when that name was as big as a name could be, especially for a kid like that.


And so they adopted me and took me under their wing.


You must have felt like a little rock star.


It was pretty incredible. That's for sure.


Did you wear the little red hat?


I did. Really? I did indeed.


Did you ever try smoking a pipe?


I never tried smoking a pipe, no.


Did you drink some wonderful French wine?


I have definitely at that age. They were trying to cultivate my inner Frenchness. And yes, I drink my fair share of wine. And it was a wonderful experience because it was just absolutely fabulous. And of course, that just changed my entire life. So I'm going to keeping an eye out as we're going along for manatees. But I wanted to tell you a little bit about what we're seeing here. So this whole Crystal River And so, yeah, he's steering us all over his childhood territory.


And he's, of course, able to say, this used to be like this and this used to be like that. And now there's a giant mansion here.


And so that's Now, he said the water used to be, I mean, it's called Crystal River because the water used to be crystal clear.


And now it's pretty murky in most of it. The water quality has really plummeted. And you used to see none of the boat traffic that we were seeing that day. You would not see groups of tourists out there looking for manatees. It was just buddy and the manatees all alone back in those days. What are these little heads that I seeing popping out of the water? Those are turtles. I keep seeing things in the water. I see a little something pop up from the water, and I'm like, Manatee. But he's like, No, that's a turtle. And something would jump out of the water and just be a fish. But then at one point, he did say, There it is.


Our 11 o'clock. So you can see the series of them, one in front of the other. So it's just slowly swimming along. That's right.


And we saw this manatee off to the left of the boat.


So we don't want to disturb it because it's there. It's coming up the surface. See the back? There's the back of it. So that's a nice adult manatee.


The tail, we saw the whole of it. See its back come up and then its tail, and it would leave these what buddy called tail prints on the water. That's so you could follow where it was going. And it was really thrilling to see one so far from shore, just doing its natural thing. Does it still feel special for you to see a manatee?


Oh, yeah. It's hard to explain it, but every time I see a manatee, I still get excited about it. I can watch them for her. Back then-We're cruising around.


He's taking us down little side coves. As we're cruising around, we keep seeing- These guys are probably with one.


Those guys over there are probably with one.


These other tourist boats and crowds of people in the water. Where are we right now? That was the fastest way to find a manatee. It's like Here at Yellowstone, the fastest way to find a bear is to find the traffic jam of people looking at the bear on the side of the road. Here, there were traffic jams of boats and crowds of tourists who were floating with pool noodles and flippers and goggles, and they're all just hanging around a manatee while it's eating. I don't know. I feel almost inclined not to get in the water with a big crowd of people staring at one It's a manate.


Yeah, I can understand.


We're keeping our distance because once I see that, it's not what I imagined for my manatee encounter. Somehow it does not feel to me like outside of the predator-prey hustle and bustle chain, the side of... Oh, there's one more thing. Whoa. There's two propeller marks on it.


Two propeller marks on it.


Wow. Can you tell what size that one was?


It's a small adult.


He's hanging out at the bottom?


He's feeding.


Can you describe what the scene looks like? Well, we got 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, six, seven, eight plus boats out here full of people in wetsuits. Then we've got groups of people in wetsuits with pool noodles and Snorkels sticking up who are in the water, face down, all in a tight cluster. We assume staring at one manatee. We've got two or three groups of people like that. We've got boats docked outside of houses, boats with huge Huge, huge, powerful-looking motors. This boat has two giant motors on the back, two big Honda motors.


As you can see, he's circled. He doesn't realize that There's a manate. As you can see, you can see the bottom. It's not really that- Super shallow. That shallow.


So he could be doing some damage.


Well, he's going slowly enough that that manate will move out of the way. But if he wasn't going slowly, yes, absolutely. And not only that, it's just a matter of disturbance, too. These animals, they It becomes somewhat habituated, but generally, they just want to be left alone to feed.


We basically did this all day. We'd see a manate, it would be surrounded by a crowd, and I would say, Well, let's try another one. Finally, the day was over. I was sunburned. We had to take the boat back, and we went into this little lagoon, and there was a manate, and there was a crowd of people around it. I don't know, Kelsey, how do you feel? Do you want to jump in? I mean, I'm hot, so. Yeah, me too. I thought about it and decided, Okay, I guess we should probably just do it. So we could do it here. Yeah. Since we know we're here. Came all this way. I don't want to miss my opportunity and regret it later. So I guess I'll just...


Just quiet back in here.


Be one of the crowd and get in there. What do you think? Let's try it.


These guys are harassing him a little bit.


And sometimes Buddy would point out like, They're harassing that manatee. You're really not supposed to be that close, or you're not supposed to be swimming after it. You just stay still and let it do what it wants. You don't follow it, and you don't interact. You just look.


He told me to just float like a log when I get in there. Try to stay at least And I'm like, Where'd it go? A manate or two length away from it. Okay.


What if it approaches?


Then you just stay still and let it do its thing. And like I said, just pretend to be another object in the water. Okay.


All right. So Sam, I'm probably going to stay up here.


Maybe you can tell me what you're doing as you're doing it, as you're getting in the water.


All right. Well, I'm going to put this snorkel on. I'm going to take my shoes off.


Okay, so there's two right here just feeding. And so what you don't want to do is disturb them in any way and just be as quiet as you possibly can. Keep an eye on me because I can obviously... That's one of the reasons I don't get in the order is I can spot and see further away. And so I'll give you directions. I don't like to yell out over the water. But just occasionally, just lift your head up and take a look at me.


Keep an eye out for alligators.


I'll tell you if one comes. The sun came out. I appreciate that.




So with that one still over there. Because there's two over here now.


So I was in my wetsuit already. I put on my flippers and my goggles and my snorkel and got in the water. So 72 degrees doesn't feel that warm. Kind of chilly water. So I get in and the water is very murky. There's a lot...


11 o'clock. Start ahead. 12 o'clock. 11 o'clock.


There's a lot of plants, a lot of sea grass. And so it's just like murk and sea grass, and I can't really see where I'm going. But I know the general direction the manatee is in, and Buddy is shouting out, It's at 11 o'clock, and he's guiding me across the water. So I'm just swimming with a face full of murky sea grass, and I can't see where I'm going, and I'm not sure if I'm going anywhere. And then all of a sudden, it was such a shock. All of a sudden, I come shooting out of the murk, and I'm on top of the manatee, practically. I did not see it coming. By the time I saw it, I was there, and it's eating facing away from me. And so I come to a stop basically right next to its gigantic tail, which I know from my manatee research is so strong and potentially dangerous dangerous. And so I was instantly panicked. But I also knew that rule number one of being near a manatee is that you can't panic and thrash around because you'll scare the manatee, and then it will potentially thrash. And so I had to work as hard as I could to stop my momentum as quickly but as gently as I could until my momentum stopped just inches from the manate tail.


And I was able to scooch backwards very slowly until I was a few feet away.


Sam is about a manatee away from the manatee. A manatee length away.


And then I just watched. I just stared because this thing was so otherworldly, almost like ghostly pale, gray color, almost like glowing in the light. And it's just peacefully eating grass. And all these other people are around me, but we're not noticing each other at all because we're all just so in awe of this manate, really. And I don't know how long I floated there, but for a pretty long time. And then I decided, All right, I saw a manate. It didn't turn around and look at me, which, I mean, why would it? But that was okay. So very gently, I turned and I swam through the merck back to the boat. And just as I was starting to tell everybody what I had seen, one of the little crowd watching the manatee eat, shouted, It's turning. It's coming your way. Really? And I turned, and the manatee had turned around and was swimming directly toward our boat. Oh my gosh.


Leading along the bottom. Do I get back in or no? It's up to you. Be very, very quiet.


And so I just gently let go of the ladder and dropped back under the water to see what it was going to do. And the manatee came right over to me and started grazing the sea grass right next to our boat, down below my flippers. And so I just floated there, suspended, watching it.


How do you feel?


Then after a few seconds, the most magical thing happened, which is the manatee stopped eating. It tilted its body up vertical, and it floated up toward the surface, and it paused, and it looked at me. It really looked me in the eyes, and I was looking at the manate, and the manate was looking at me. I always fantasized about this moment and all the many feelings that would pass between us, and we would just beam warm feelings back and forth to each other. I felt in the manate's gaze, I felt nothing. There was no magical soul connection. That was That was good and normal. And the fantasy I had was abnormal. I should probably talk to my therapist, Susan, about it on Friday at 1:00 PM. And so it kept drifting up and it took a breath. And then it went back down with bubbles coming out, and it It tilted itself back to horizontal, and it started just swimming past me and under the boat. And this thing was so huge. It took forever, it felt like. It felt like it was swimming in slow motion. I just watched its whole pale, glowing body pass right in front of my face, peacefully, gracefully.


And its huge tail came by last, and then it was on. And I went back up to the surface. This one here was so close. Speeding right there. Came up surface right in front of me to breathe. Looked at me. Which that was my goal. I wanted to be looked at by a manatee. Look deep into your soul. No, she didn't. And... Just I really was so jazzed. I really was. It was very profound. It just looked at me. How are you feeling right now? Good. I feel happy. Yeah, I feel like, weirdly fulfilled. Like a life mission has been fulfilled. What was it like? It was sweet. The people were sweet. I wonder where that manatee is now. I bet it's right near the same spot eating, eating grass, taking a nap, farting, sending bubbles up to the surface. It's like jowels shaking while it chews its lettuce, it's grass. This episode was produced by Kaitlyn Roberts and Larissa Anderson, with help from Crystal Duhame. It was reported by me, Sam Anderson, and edited by Wendy Dore and Larissa Anderson. It was engineered by Marion Lozano. Our executive producer is Paula Schumann. Original music by Marion Lozano and Pat McCusker.


Fact-checking by Ena Alvarado. Special thanks to Jake Silverstein, Sasha Weiss, and Sam Delnick. Also to all the manatee experts we met, Wayne Hartley, Martina DeVille, Andy Garrett, Wanda Jones, and Tom Pitchford, and to Craig Pitman, who wrote the book Manity Insanity, which was a great resource. You can listen to all of our episodes wherever you get podcasts, or visit our website at nytimes. Com/animal. I'm Sam Anderson. Thanks for listening.