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‘Animal’ Podcast, Episode 3: Manatees

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‘Animal’ Podcast, Episode 3: Manatees


This transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. Please review the episode audio before quoting from this transcript and email transcripts@nytimes.com with any questions.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

sam anderson

From “The New York Times,” this is “Animal.” I’m Sam Anderson. Episode three, Manatees.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ All right.

speaker 1

Morning.

^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ Good morning. How are you?

buddy powell

Hey.

sam anderson

How you doing?

buddy powell

Doing all right. How about yourself?

sam anderson

I’m good.

buddy powell

You picked a great day.

sam anderson

[LAUGHS]: I know.

buddy powell

Come on. I wonder if I have the right —

sam anderson

What are the rules on that?

buddy powell

Yeah. The rain’s not an issue. It’s the lightning. And I got a little app on my phone here that’s — yeah, we got — 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, yeah.

sam anderson

Yeah.

buddy powell

So you all booked a private tour? Yeah. OK.

sam anderson

Is Kelsey coming?

buddy powell

Yeah, I think Kelsey’s going to join us. She just texted me.

sam anderson

For some reason I do not fully understand, I’ve always wanted to get in the water with a manatee.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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, sort of boomerang-shaped flippers up front 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, seagrass mainly. Almost never aggressive. They kind of float outside all of these cycles of predators and prey and doing stuff.

They just float there. And I sort of 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.

sam anderson

It looks like they’re sending people out.

buddy powell

Yeah, they’ll be watching the weather.

sam anderson

OK.

sam anderson

So when I think about getting in the water with a manatee, I don’t know exactly what I want to happen. But when I really try to imagine it, I think what I want is for a manatee to look at me. I want to see a manatee seeing me. I want to look at a manatee, and I want the manatee to look back at me. And I just want to have a moment of connection or whatever it is.

sam anderson

People said they were ugly?

buddy powell

Oh, yeah.

sam anderson

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. And 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.

sam anderson

This is you in your element.

buddy powell

Yeah, this is my element here.

sam anderson

And Buddy Powell is actually still there. In the decades since, he’s become maybe the pre-eminent manatee scientist in the world, and he’s the director of a big marine center not far from Crystal River. And he occasionally will still take people around Crystal River, where he grew up, as he did for Jacques Cousteau.

kaitlin roberts

What is this? This is liability, assumption of risk.

sam anderson

So we arranged a private boat tour with Buddy Powell, me, and my colleague Kaitlin Roberts, who is there with the microphone.

sam anderson

See if they say cover alligators.

sam anderson

Buddy’s PR person Kelsey is going to join us too. She’s running a little late.

sam anderson

One more is coming.

speaker 2

OK. Not here yet?

sam anderson

No. She’s close, though. All right, guys. Well, we’re going to go ahead and get started.

sam anderson

So Kaitlin and I had actually been in Florida for about a week before this swimming day, criss-crossing the state, talking to various manatee experts, getting ready for that moment when I get in the water and have an encounter.

speaker 1

So everyone here is for 10:15, correct?

kaitlin roberts

Yes.

sam anderson

And 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.

speaker 1

Fresh water we have out on the bay.

sam anderson

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 a speedboat comes ripping through, often it will hit a manatee. And getting hit by a speedboat 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 — [LAUGHS]

buddy powell

You’ll need to get wetsuits and snorkeling gear here.

sam anderson

OK.

buddy powell

So just rent it. And then you’ll need to watch a video.

sam anderson

OK.

buddy powell

“Manatee Manners.”

sam anderson

“Manatee Manners,” OK.

sam anderson

OK. Where else did we go? We went to this pathology lab in Tampa where they actually do autopsies on every manatee that turns up dead in Florida to figure out the reasons why. And 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 kind of algae that blooms in the water under certain conditions and makes manatees drown. And 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 that these huge seagrass 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.

sam anderson

Should we get out on the boat, if it’s —

speaker 1

You’ve got to watch the —

sam anderson

Oh, we have to watch manatee manners?

speaker 1

Yeah.

speaker 3

Welcome to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and the Kings Bay Manatee Refuge. You are among the —

sam anderson

I kept asking these experts, like, how do you deal with this emotionally? Is it hard? Do you cry? And —

speaker 3

The following activities or the attempt to perform any of the following activities is prohibited throughout Kings Bay. Chasing or pursuing a manatee.

sam anderson

— a lot of them were able to have a kind of scientific detachment. They’re just really trying to diagnose what’s wrong and help as best they can.

speaker 3

— cornering or surrounding a manatee.

sam anderson

But I remember one guy I spoke with —

speaker 3

— riding, holding, grabbing —

sam anderson

— he surprised me a little bit. I said, do you have hope for the future of manatees?

speaker 3

— poking, prodding, or stabbing a manatee with anything, including your hands and feet.

sam anderson

And he said, deep in my heart, no.

speaker 3

— standing or stepping on a manatee.

buddy powell

Come on, now.

sam anderson

But he said he’s still — deep in his heart, no, but he still hopes.

speaker 3

— separating a mother and calf or separating —

sam anderson

He also 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. And so if we can’t find a way to keep manatees alive, then we’re not going to be able to save anything.

speaker 4

Ready?

buddy powell

All set?

sam anderson

Let’s do it. I’m ready.

buddy powell

Follow me.

speaker 3

— and other visitors. By following these simple ground rules —

speaker 4

Bye.

buddy powell

Bye. Thank you.

speaker 4

Thank you.

sam anderson

Thank you.

speaker 3

— and disturbance, while increasing your opportunity —

buddy powell

Oh, blue sky.

^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ I know.

sam anderson

To be honest, that kind of makes me hate us for wanting to swim with manatees. ^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ Well, the people that don’t follow the regulations —

But even us in our stupid wetsuits floating around in the crowds of people staring at them, man. It’s just, like, shut the whole thing down.

^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ 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. ^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ Yeah.

Like, 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? ^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ Yeah, exactly. That’s why there has to be, I mean, also, a lot of regulation on the tour guides, too.

sam anderson

So 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.

speaker 1

Why don’t we go —

sam anderson

Oh, OK.

speaker 1

— go over to the boat, and then we can get — after you — so you can go back into —

sam anderson

We have out snorkels.

KAITLIN ROBERTS Oh, yeah. [QUIET MUSIC]

All right, let’s plug these in.

buddy powell

Have you driven one of these before, sir?

sam anderson

I have.

buddy powell

OK, so you understand that stream of water that needs to come out of the side of that motor at all times?

sam anderson

Yep.

sam anderson

So Buddy Powell, the local guide —

buddy powell

If you’re ready to go, I’ll get you unhooked.

speaker 1

All right, thanks for your —

sam anderson

Thanks a lot.

sam anderson

— gets us in our boat, and we toodle off into the water.

sam anderson

This is where you grew up?

buddy powell

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

sam anderson

I wanted to know all about his Jacques Cousteau experience and what that was like.

sam anderson

Were you aware of Jacques Cousteau at this point in your life?

buddy powell

Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, back in the day when we only had three channels, you would sort of wait. What did they come out, like, four times a year or twice a year? It was a big deal to watch that show. So obviously, very much a role model.

sam anderson

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.

buddy powell

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

sam anderson

You must have felt like a little rock star.

buddy powell

It was pretty incredible. That’s for sure.

sam anderson

Did you did you wear the little red hat?

buddy powell

I did.

sam anderson

Really?

buddy powell

I did, indeed.

sam anderson

Did you ever try smoking a pipe?

buddy powell

I never tried smoking a pipe, no.

sam anderson

Did you drink some wonderful French wine?

buddy powell

I have — definitely, at that age, they were trying to cultivate my inner Frenchness. And yes, I drank my fair share of wine. And it was a wonderful experience because I just — absolutely fabulous. And of course, that just changed my entire life.

So I’m going to be keeping an eye out, as we’re going along, for manatees. But I wanted to tell you a little bit of about what we’re seeing here. So this whole Crystal River —

sam anderson

And so, yeah, he’s steering us all over his childhood territory. And he’s, of course, able to say, you know, this used to be like this, and this used to be like that. And now there’s a giant mansion here. And 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.

buddy powell

There are a lot of manatee tours.

sam anderson

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.

sam anderson

What are these little heads that I keep seeing popping out of the water?

buddy powell

Those are turtles.

sam anderson

I keep seeing things in the water. You see a little — something pop up from the water, and I’m like, manatee! But he’s like, nope, 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 —

buddy powell

There.

sam anderson

— there it is.

buddy powell

At our 11:00. So you can see the series of them, one in front of the other. So it’s just slowly swimming along.

sam anderson

Here?

buddy powell

That’s right.

sam anderson

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

buddy powell

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

sam anderson

The tail — we saw the whole —

sam anderson

We could 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 sort of follow where it was going. And it was really thrilling to see one so far from shore, just doing its natural thing.

sam anderson

Does it still feel special for you to see a manatee?

buddy powell

Oh, yeah. It’s hard to explain it, but every time I see a manatee, I still get excited about it. And I can watch them forever.

So back then —

sam anderson

So we’re cruising around. He’s taking us down a little side coves. And as we’re cruising around, we keep seeing —

buddy powell

These guys are probably with one. Those guys over there are probably with one.

sam anderson

— these other tourist boats and crowds of people in the water. And that was the fastest way to find a manatee. It’s kind of like when you’re 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 kind of hanging around a manatee while it’s eating.

sam anderson

I don’t know. I feel almost inclined not to get in the water with a big crowd of people staring at one manatee.

buddy powell

Yeah, I can understand that.

sam anderson

So we’re kind of keeping our distance because once I see that, it’s not what I imagined for my manatee encounter.

sam anderson

Somehow it does not feel to me like outside of the predator-prey, hustle and bustle chain, the sort of —

buddy powell

Oh.

speaker 4

Oh, there’s one right there.

sam anderson

Whoa.

speaker 5

I get scared by —

^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ There’s two propeller marks on it.

buddy powell

Oh, my god. [DISTANT VOICES]

sam anderson

Could you tell what size that one was?

buddy powell

It’s a small adult.

sam anderson

Just hanging out at the bottom?

buddy powell

Just feeding.

^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ Can you describe what the scene looks like?

sam anderson

Well, we’ve got one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight-plus boats out here full of people in wetsuits. And then we’ve got groups of people in wetsuits with pool noodles and snorkels sticking up who are in the water, kind of face down, all in a tight cluster, we assume, staring at one manatee. And we’ve got two or three groups of people like that.

Yeah, we’ve got boats docked outside of houses, boats with huge, huge, powerful-looking motors.

This boat has two giant motors on the back, two big Honda motors.

buddy powell

And as you can see, he’s — he doesn’t realize that there’s a manatee. And as you can see, you can see the bottom. It’s not really that —

sam anderson

It’s super shallow.

buddy powell

That’s shallow.

sam anderson

So he couldn’t be doing some damage?

buddy powell

Well, he’s going slowly enough that that manatee 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’ve become somewhat habituated. But generally, they want to be left alone to feed.

sam anderson

So we basically did this all day. We’d see a manatee. It would be surrounded by a crowd, and I would say, well, let’s try another one. And 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 manatee, and there was a crowd of people around it.

sam anderson

I don’t know, Kelsey How do you feel? Do you want to jump in?

^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ I mean, I’m hot, so — [LAUGHS] Yeah, yeah, me too.

sam anderson

I thought about it, and decided, OK.

sam anderson

I guess we should probably just do it.

^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ See, we could do it here.

Yeah, since we know we’re here.

sam anderson

Came all this way — I don’t want to miss my opportunity and regret it later. So I guess I’ll just —

sam anderson

It’s kind of quiet back in here.

sam anderson

— be one of the crowd and get in there.

sam anderson

What do you think? Let’s try it.

buddy powell

These guys are kind of harassing him a little bit.

sam anderson

And sometimes Buddy would point out, like, oh, they’re kind of 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, and you don’t follow it, and you don’t interact. You just look.

buddy powell

Swim very slowly.

sam anderson

He told me to just float like a log when I get in there.

buddy powell

And try to stay at least —

speaker 6

— hear me, and I’m like, where’d it go?

buddy powell

— a manatee or two length away from it.

sam anderson

OK. What if it approaches?

buddy powell

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

sam anderson

OK.

[equipment rustling, clunking]

^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ 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.

sam anderson

All right. Well, I’m going to put this snorkel on.

And I’m going to take my shoes off.

buddy powell

OK, 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 out. Keep an eye on me because I can — obviously, that’s one of the reasons I don’t get in the water 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 occasionally just lift your head up and take a look at me.

sam anderson

Keep an eye out for alligators.

buddy powell

I’ll tell you if one comes.

^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ And the sun came out.

Appreciate that, yeah. [SUSPENSEFUL MUSIC]

speaker 7

So is that one still over there? Because there’s two over here now.

speaker 8

No, that’s the one.

sam anderson

So I was in my wetsuit already. I put on my flippers, and my goggles, and my snorkel and got in the water.

sam anderson

So 72 degrees doesn’t feel that warm.

sam anderson

Kind of chilly water.

So I get in, and the water is very murky. There’s a lot —

buddy powell

11:00 — straight ahead, 12:00, 11:00.

sam anderson

There’s a lot of plants, a lot of seagrass. And so it’s just, like, murk and seagrass, and I can’t really see where I’m going. But I know the general direction the manatee is in, and Buddy is kind of shouting out, it’s at 11:00, and he’s guiding me across the water.

So I’m kind of just swimming with a face full of murky seagrass. 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 —

[DRAMATIC MUSIC]

— I come shooting out of the murk, and I’m just — I’m, like, 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. And so I was instantly kind of panicked.

[DRAMATIC MUSIC]

But I also knew that rule number 1 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, like, inches from the manatee tail.

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

^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ 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 ghostly pale kind of gray color, almost glowing in the light. And it’s just peacefully eating grass. And all these other people around me, but we’re not noticing each other at all because we’re all just so in awe of this manatee, 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 manatee. It didn’t turn around and look at me, which, I mean, why would it? But that was OK.

So very gently, I turned, and I swam through the murk 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!

sam anderson

Really?

sam anderson

And I turned, and the manatee had turned around and was swimming directly toward our boat.

buddy powell

See him right there?

sam anderson

Oh, my gosh.

speaker 4

Oh, wow.

sam anderson

If I can get back in right here —

buddy powell

They’re just feeding along the bottom there.

sam anderson

Should I get back in or no?

buddy powell

It’s up to you. Be very, very quiet.

sam anderson

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 seagrass right next to our boat, kind of down below my flippers. And so I just floated there, suspended, watching it.

KAITLIN ROBERTS Now he’s right next to the boat. And Sam is right next to it, directly next to it.

And then, after a few seconds, the most magical thing happened, which is the manatee stopped eating. And it tilted its body up vertical, and it floated up toward the surface. And it paused, and it looked at me.

Like, it really looked me in the eyes. And I was looking at the manatee, and the manatee was looking at me. And I always fantasized about this moment and all the many feelings that would pass between us. And we would just kind of beam warm feelings back and forth to each other. I felt — in the manatee’s gaze, I felt nothing.

[CALM MUSIC]

There was no magical soul connection. And that was good and normal. And the fantasy I had was abnormal. And I should probably talk to my therapist, Susan, about it on Friday at 1:00 PM.

[CALM MUSIC]

And so it kept drifting up, and it took a breath.

And then it went back down with bubbles coming out. And 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 kind of pass right in front of my face, peacefully, gracefully. And its huge tail came by last, and then it was gone.

buddy powell

It swam under the boat.

sam anderson

They both swam under it, right under the boat.

sam anderson

And I went back up to the surface.

sam anderson

This one here was so close. It was feeding right there. It came up and surfaced right in front of me to breathe. It looked at me.

[CHUCKLING]

Which, that was my goal. I wanted to be looked at by a manatee. ^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ It looked deep into your soul?

No, she didn’t.

sam anderson

And I really was so jazzed. I really was — it was very profound.

sam anderson

And the manatee cam to me.

sam anderson

It just looked at me. ^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ How are you feeling right now?

sam anderson

I feel good. I feel happy. Yeah, I feel, like, weirdly fulfilled, like a life mission has been fulfilled. ^KAITLIN ROBERTS^ What was it like?

It was — I don’t know, like, sweet. The people were sweet.

sam anderson

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, big jowls shaking while it chews it’s lettuce, it’s grass.

[JAUNTY MUSIC]

This episode was produced by Kaitlin Roberts and Larissa Anderson with help from Cristal Duhaime. It was reported by me, Sam Anderson, and edited by Wendy Dorr and Larissa Anderson. It was engineered by Marion Lozano. Our executive producer is Paula Szuchman. Original music by Marion Lozano and Pat McCusker. Fact-checking by Ana Alvarado.

Special thanks to Jake Silverstein, Sasha Weiss, and Sam Dolnick, also, to all the manatee experts we met — Wayne Hartley, Martina Devitt, Andy Garrett, Wanda Jones, and Tom Pitchford, and to Craig Pittman, who wrote the book “Manatee 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.

[JAUNTY MUSIC]



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