by Paul Ruben
Six months after discovering America, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, reported seeing three mermaids, and described them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”
In reality they were manatees, slow-moving aquatic mammals that are typically 10 to 12 feet long and weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds. They are currently an endangered species, as many die or are injured each year in Florida waters when they collide with power boats.
Like Columbus, I recently decided to go to Florida to see if a mermaid wears an algebra. Manatees were a good place to start, and here’s where my little adventure began to feel more like an episode from the old TV show, The Twilight Zone.
Specifically I went to Crystal River, just north of Tampa, to swim with the manatees. I’ve swum with dolphins before at SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove, and thought manatees would be fun, too. About three weeks earlier I had called an operator of manatee swim tours to make a reservation. I arrived in Crystal River at seven in the morning, and found his office closed. A policeman informed me that a few days earlier the man had gone to explore underwater caves, became trapped, and died. Tragic.
Undaunted, I found another operator, and off we went in his boat. But Crystal River is a misnomer. It was so murky I couldn’t see much more than a foot ahead. This was disappointing since I had brought an underwater camera to take a photo of a manatee and me. Next to a manatee I’d have looked so slim.
We snorkled around but could see nothing. Then someone on the boat said there was a manatee a few feet away. I swam over, looked down, and saw two big googely eyes and a grey patch. I reached down and scratched a leathery mass, which slowly swam away. That was my manatee encounter; dolphins are more fun.
Saying goodbye to the manatees, I headed south to Weeki Wachee Springs, the only city of live mermaids. This was more like it; babes in tails! I had the above photo taken with Mermaid Angela. Now why does she look so slim?
Weeki Wachee Springs, is a natural attraction created in 1947 by ex-Navy frogman Newton Perry, who based the show on frogman techniques, where women dressed with fins about their legs can be viewed in an aquarium-like setting in the spring of the Weeki Wachee River. After a certain amount of problems in recent years, the attraction, which also includes a waterpark and boat rides, has just been saved, as you can read elsewhere in this issue.
I enjoyed my visit so much that driving back to my hotel I even found myself humming the favourite song of all mermaids, Salmon-chanted Evening.