Swimming with Florida’s manatee (dugong)

It’s satisfying ticking off a bucket list item: swimming with manatee – tick.

With two Florida locals, and three from Mexico, I cruise some Florida canals looking for a 600-kg creature (1322.77 lb). Sirenia are large marine herbivores and are also called sea cows, manatee, dugong and for sailors, mermaids.  It’s not the right season, but a few are permanent residents. We are looking for a fat needle in a large, watery haystack.

The canals are beautiful with expensive real estate and living at the water’s edge are a few ordinary working folks among the rich and famous including John Travolta who has a holiday home here.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge looks after this part of Kings Bay and many locals object to their speed, and other, restrictions. DJ, our young Captain, calls out to a young guy in a hire boat to slow down, to obey the speed limit – he did, but maybe just until we were out of sight.

Manatees, which lack blubber which allows whales tolerate the cold, have a near-perfect winter refuge here as many of the springs produce large quantities of warm (22 c) water.  We’re told that the locals in this de-facto manatee capital of the USA can, from November to March, walk out their doors and see dozens of them swimming or sleeping in the canals.

We pass a boat, with its passengers in the water watching this relative of elephants, but DJ moves on and later, just when I decide my bucket list will not be ticked today, we find a manatee floating on the water like a great grey blimp beside a private jetty.

I’m so excited. The only other manatee I’d seen was in a Disney park many years ago – wildlife in the wild is always different!

“She’s due to pop” our skipper says. It seems no-one has ever seen a birth and a local university has offered $US10, 000 for a video of the event. I immediately check my camera’s video setting, wriggle into a wet suit, then with mask and snorkel on, slip off the back of the boat.

For some reason the water’s very dark at this time of the year which suits the manatee as they can sink and be out of sight quickly.

Keeping well back from this pregnant cow I’m thrilled to be in the water with her. We’d learnt they needed warmth from the sun and her back was out of the water catching sun rays.

Although only a few feet away, the murky water made her hard to see clearly. I just float and admire her while sending mental ‘I love you’, and ‘we won’t hurt you’ messages. We stay in the water for about ten minutes and she’s motionless the whole time. As we get back into the boat she glides slowly into the middle of the canal and I miss her lifting her nostrils to breathe before sinking.

Our boat moves away slowly, heading for the Three Sisters Springs where, in season, photos are taken of the manatees resting in the clear, warm water. It was photos such as them that had put the manatee on my to-experience bucket list.

Once again we slide off the back of the boat, swim past two cruise boats moored between us and the entrance to the springs, then past the barrier that stops boats entering. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop canoes and kayaks and I keep to the edge as many of the boats seem to have passengers who have little control over their direction.

The water is much clearer here and I see how easy it would be to watch them underwater: a reminder that bucket lists sometimes need to be time specific.

Touching protected wild animals, as our captain had suggested we could (none of us did) would never be allowed in many countries, and it’s this ‘swim with manatee’ activity that has conservationists, boaters, some residents, politicians and tour operators arguing over the future of the area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversee all wildlife refuge areas and, manage the manatee population too.

In the video shown before we boarded, we were told ‘don’t disturb resting manatees; don’t block them when they are leaving the roped-off areas (where people are forbidden) and don’t touch.’

Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, believes the situation at Crystal River is harassment of the manatees, and is “in direct violation of both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.” He advocates stricter rules including requiring swimmers to “stop a body length away from manatees” so they are free to interact, or not, with people. “The majority of the dive shops are trying to do a good job” Rose says, and “If they want to be responsible and protect the privilege they have, which is so unique, then fine. If not, the swim-with program should go.”

Some years ago, in Florida, I’d bought a Wyland (marine artist) print of a manatee and baby and now I’ve seen one – without a baby, so no ten thousand dollars for me.  With its fat, flat, wrinkled face and sensory whiskers, the manatee looks rather like an overweight dolphin or small whale despite not being related to either.

Vulnerable to extinction, the population in this state is under 5000 and it seems that without stronger conservation efforts, these gentle creatures will be consigned to legend status along with the mermaids.

Like New Zealand’s flightless birds, the manatee evolved in an environment with abundant food and no predators.  Now vulnerable, its survival depends on locals and tourists being willing to share its home. If you are travelling in Florida, November is Manatee Awareness month and when you are most likely to see them.


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Amish in Florida – photos for Radio NZ talk

I’m talking about the ‘Amish in Florida’ on Radio NZ’s programme Nights (Our Own Odysseys) with Bryan Crump on Tuesday 24th Jan . Here’s a link to the audio and also to my blog about these photos and their pedal-powered buggiesweb3-wheeled-horse-and-buggy web84-years-old-and-still-working-long-hours webbird-houses-are-popular webonly-horse-and-buggy-in-town webquilt-is-are-a-tradition-among-plain-people

Listen in on Tuesday 24th January 2017 at 1910, or check the podcast later

Connecting dots – from a book group to a national historic landmark

Life is funny sometimes – it arranges connections between things then ensures you follow the dots. I’ve had such an experience recently.

Mid-2016 my book group had set the topic American politics as our subject for reading around. Given that it was election-year I was actually sick of American politics as even in New Zealand our TVs were full of it.

So, while some chose history, others presidential (or hopefuls) biographies, I went looking for stories about the wives – and of course it was only wives given America has never had a female leader.

I found one about Betty Ford, called Betty a Glad Awakening – I chose this as, it wasn’t current times, I knew an A&D counselor who had attended the opening of the treatment Centre in LA that bears her name, and have known people who have attended a rehab centre – so thought this topic and book could be of interest. It was.

The next connection, or dot, along the way was a couple of months later hearing a presentation in which the speaker talked about an article in a Times Magazine and a list of ‘80 days that changed the world’.

Not having seen it, but interested, I looked it up and found, among these most diverse days of . . .
The First Talking Picture
The Overlooked Miracle
The Mouse That Roared
Wall Street’s Bad, Bad Fall
A Disobedient Saint’s March
Movies’ Moral Crackdown
Birth of the Superhero
Storming into Poland
Churchill Takes Charge
What I Saw at Pearl Harbor
D-Day: Saving a Continent
Flying Faster than Sound
The Dawn of Israel
New China is Born
. . . and at number 13 in the Time’s list, ‘AA Takes Its First Steps’ – a loose connection to the book.

Two days later I’m visiting the historical home (Stepping Stones) of one of AA’s co-founders Bill W and his wife Lois. stepping-stones-webimg_9562

So, that’s why I say life is funny: that a thread ran through my life this year – from a topic in my book group in Wellington New Zealand, to visiting New York, USA, to hearing about a magazine article, and as a result, visited Stepping Stones which has been a national historic landmark since 2012.

All I can suggest is check out the list and see if any connect dots in your life, holiday, or interests.





New York, New York: so good they named it twice

Autumn colours in New York
Autumn colours in New York

‘New York, New York – so good they named it twice and, despite that, I do have fears.

I’m told, ‘The Big Apple is full of crime; they won’t help you if you fall over; don’t travel by the subway,’ warnings, often given by American people who have never been there, fueled the fear

I have to find my way to the youth hostel on Amsterdam and 108th Street – travelling on the subway that I’ve been warned to stay away from. I often feel vulnerable when arriving in a new place – a pack on my back and not knowing where I’m going – each new city raises minor fears.

Adrenalin running and money tucked out of sight, I find my way downtown, to Manhattan, the spiritual and geographical epicentre of New York. Following my guidebook I arrive at the correct station, buy a ticket in the graffiti-festooned underground then get off at the right station. Back up at ground level it’s only a short block to the large old hostel and mentally tick off another obstacle. ‘Welcome to Noo Yawk’ says the young man on reception.

I’m sure my eyeballs will freeze as I walk into the fierce wind towards the Hudson, my eyelashes have ice on them and my eyeballs are cold, achingly sore. The wind blows me down the canyon-like streets with their cliff-like buildings and I’m sure my tourist status is obvious with my upward gaze and open mouth. I’m excited to be walking down Broadway: a place that seems so glamorous, so seedy, so awfully wonderful and dangerous when seen in movies or TV.

It’s snowed and after breakfast, with five others, I walk around Central Park with a guide from the youth hostel – a local who loves his city and gives these free mini-tours every week. I feel concerned for the homeless man sleeping under a bridge: it’s not weather for sleeping out. The pond is frozen and the trees beautiful: hung with hoarfrost they look like they have crystals hanging from the branches and we leave the park via Strawberry Fields, the garden commemorating John Lennon who lived and died across the road.

I spend the day rubbernecking: at the Empire State Building, the art deco Chrysler Building, the World Trade Centre and talk to locals. The people are not the churlish big city bores I was told to expect, yet another fallacy gone and I’m invited to join two out-of-work actors and a teacher in their favourite Italian restaurant. They combine their knowledge and tell me their special places that I ‘must not miss.’

The Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museums on 5th Avenue are on the top of their list as well as Little Italy, Soho and Lower East Side. They draw a map on the tablecloth – plain white newsprint – using three large crayons provided for the grown-up kids who eat here and I rip the map off the tablecloth for future reference.

More snow has fallen overnight and snowplows, the first I’ve ever seen, are busy on the streets and, while writing my journal, realise it’s impossible to be indifferent to this city. The ethnic stew, or salad, makes it a vibrant place and not once have I experienced the emotional coldness I was told to expect.

An intriguing notice on the board in the lobby catches my eye. Help needed at the University Soup Kitchen. Meet Saturday 9 am – here in foyer, if you can give us some time. Thinking of the man under the bridge I offer my labour and next morning join two Australians and we’re taken by underground to the venue.

‘Welcome to the University Soup Kitchen,’ a conservatively dressed woman addresses us: we can hear capital letters stressed in her speech. ‘We are commonly called the Meat-Loaf Kitchen because that is what we Cook Every Week.

She looks around the room of helpers, eyeballing us, daring us to show any prejudice against her customers. I’m to set tables, then serve coffee. The boss-lady adds a postscript, ‘People are allowed Second Helpings Only after All have been Served. They can have as much Coffee as they want. We Pour coffee for people At the Tables. You would Expect that if You were in a Restaurant and They are to Get the Same Good Service.’ Her voice fills the large hall at the back of the church and the Aussies and I exchange raised eyebrows.

I carry two coffee-pots to the first table. ‘Hi guys, coffee anyone?’ Silently they all indicate yes and I pour out six mugs, before going to the next table. ‘Hi everyone, coffee all around?’ This table is more vocal and we talk about the weather.

‘It’s going to snow some more,’ a man tells me and for two hours I’m in and out of the kitchen refilling the coffee-pots as well as responding to cries for more sugar or another plate of bread. While stragglers remain over the last of their meal I help sweep the floor and tidy up. As we find our way back to the hostel even more light snow falls – the forecasters in the soup kitchen were right.

Next morning, from my third floor window, the scene’s been transformed, it’s snowed heavily and cars parked on the roadside are nearly covered. I’m excited and bundle myself up to go out – I’ve never seen so much whiteness except on a ski field. There are few vehicles around, with the exception of snowploughs and the pavements are slippery. I fall and as I’m clambering to my feet, two men help me up: another fallacy gone – New Yorkers do help if you fall.

All day the snow continues, the TV tells of power cuts in Quebec and other places around New York City and state. We have power but the transport system, except for the subway, has stopped. Airports are closed and the foyer is full of people who can’t get to their next destination. The hostel is full and staff are busy with requests for beds and to explain, ‘No I don’t know when the airport will be open.’

A news flash tells us that the 24-hour post office has closed, the first time in its history. A state of emergency is declared: the all-day-all-night-city has ground to a halt and I think of the people I poured coffee for yesterday; the TV is already reporting deaths of homeless people.

Outside the hostel, cars are stranded and I photograph taxis in the middle of the street – snow up to their roof. An enterprising person is hiring out skis and Broadway has become a ski field. ‘The blizzard of 96’ the storm has been named, the worst snowstorm in 50 years.

Days later I leave for Europe: New York New York, absolutely well worth naming twice.’

Re-posted this extract from Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad. Available on Amazon



Mermaids are alive and well in Florida!

Weeki Wachee Springs is a very, very small ‘city’ with a population of 4. It’s also a Florida state park and ‘the world’s only city of live mermaids’ who perform in the Underwater Theatre which was built into the limestone of the spring in 1947.

Waiting for the mermaids
Waiting for the mermaids

When the curtains parted, the sun shone into the turquoise spring, and schools of small fish and turtles swam into view. Then, from some deeper part of the spring a mermaid swam up to the glass in a mermaid tail. Waving and smiling, she swam the entire width of the glass without appearing to need to breathe. However, at some 6 metres deep, the free-divers have air hoses to get their oxygen. I was amazed at how they used the hoses, which just float in the water in between them breathing from them, and I was anxious they would find them and get to breath.

While I was a little dubious about visiting this attraction I found it fascinating about how it was done. I’m not a diver so this is not something I would ever try to do – especially when I find out they have to down a long pipe to get into the pool: I’d panic!

These are natural spring, some 50 metres deep, which feed the Weeki Wachee River, which pumps huge quantities of fresh water into the Gulf of Mexico daily. The state’s goal is to keep the spring and the river healthy, and I heard someone say ‘ it’s debatable how much the show helps environmental efforts’.

Mermaids are said to be aquatic creatures with the upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish – appearing in the myths worldwide. Sightings of them are now thought to have been sirenia (a biological order comprising dugongs and manatees) and the sightings by sailors were really encounters with these aquatic mammals. Although Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids while exploring the Caribbean so I may be wrong!

Mermaids of course have been a popular subject of art and literature in recent centuries – for instance Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale The Little Mermaid where a young mermaid falls in love with a human prince whom she saves from drowning when his ship was wrecked.  A world-famous statue, based on Andersen’s fairy tale, has been in Copenhagen, Denmark for over 100 years.

As well as watching the mermaid show, we also went on a short trip on the river with its extremely clear water. I believe canoes can be hired too.


many of the workers are volunteers such as these two
many of the workers are volunteers – such as these two

web use IMG_0785 mermaids (1)

Roadside signs, Namibia & USA!

Just for when you forgot you're in the middle of the Namib Desert
Montana USA -- in NZ we would call it a 'shingle' (loose metal) road

Roadside signs, Namibia & USA! | Kiwi-travel-writer: A freelance,blogging travel-writer


from the Namibia Desert and the USA comes more funny road signs … well -funny for those of us who don’t live there!

santa fe celebrates 400 years

The Santa Fe 400th Anniversary will commemorate 400 years of culture from the establishment of the city as a “villa” in 1610 by the Spanish, through today.  Proudly that makes us the Oldest Capital City in the United States!

A number of cultures played key roles in Santa Fe’s development:  Native Americans who settled long before 1610, Hispanic, European and African Americans of diverse backgrounds. These lives and stories have created a cross-cultural tapestry of interdependence that over time has made Santa Fe one of the most diverse and rich cultural communities in the country.

The commemoration will honor all of our cultures, heritage, legacies and lasting contributions, connecting the founding past with the promise of tomorrow.

The Santa Fe 400th Anniversary Inc, is a 501C-3 non-profit corporation created to design and produce the events and activities commemorating Santa Fe, New Mexico as the oldest Capital City in the United States.

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