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There’s nothing like it in the world, the sensation of floating peacefully with enormous wild animals all around me.
After swimming around for the past hour and shooting video clips, I have finally begun to relax. I’m in a small cove at the back of the Three Sisters, my favorite corner of the spring. It is lunchtime and the crowds have disappeared. But I’m not alone. The water is as clear as a swimming pool and I can see every tiny fish, every root from every tree that clings to the shore, and every one of the slumbering giants. I breathe out slowly through my snorkel and let my limbs hang limply. Suddenly there is no sound, no more ripples in the water, just peace. Finally I feel what it’s like to be a manatee.
Cristina and I have come here every winter for the past three years. And I hope to come back every year for the rest of my life. After all my travels to see animals, to every continent of the world, this experience still amazes me every time. Here, in Crystal River Florida, I can feel accepted by the wild animals around me.
There is one wise old bull that I recognize from last year. He is sleeping in the same back corner where I photographed him last year. It was the day of our wedding. Cristina and I got married on a pontoon boat next to King Spring and then brought the whole wedding party here to the Three Sisters so we could all swim with the manatees. It was a perfect day, the tide was up and the spring was full of friendly beasts. But I remember I had one quiet moment, when everyone was heading back to the boat. Cristina and I were the last in the spring and I floated quietly up to this huge old fellow. He looked at me calmly, and ever so slowly he floated toward me. He looked me in the eye and I felt the weight of his years and knowledge and experience.
Today I have found him again. The same pattern of algae across his wrinkly forehead. The same look of deep wisdom in his eyes. Again he slowly rises from the bottom as if to take a breath. But instead he stops level with me. I wonder if he recognizes me. He stares calmly into my eyes as if he were evaluating me. I wonder where he has spent this past year. How far has he traveled? What strange sights has he has seen along the way? How may dozens of years has he come to this quiet corner to sleep away the cold winter? How many millions of years have his ancestors survived by sheltering here? How many more years will his kind survive in the face of humanity?
He studies me with his steady gaze and slowly floats toward me. He doesn’t degrade himself by rolling over for a belly rub, nor does he nuzzle me in the face as the curious youngsters tend to do. We simply float in the quiet water, together.