Pypr McCloud swimming with a manatee cow in Crystal River, Florida, in December 2020. (Courtesy/Stacy McCloud)
December 2020: “Why didn’t I bring my own wetsuit?” I thought as I was wiggling into this loaner neoprene garment.
I usually take one of my own neoprene covers when we go on a beach getaway. However, this adventure was not planned and completely impromptu, proving that one never really knows what adventures await and that proper planning prevents pshhh poor performance.
Simply put, every wetsuit I wear, I prefer to be the first AND only person who has peed in it.
I was sure that I was adorning my entire body with a scuba pro wetsuit that was peed in by two different people per day, at least. Math doesn’t lie: twice per day, 7 days per week, multiplied by 4 weeks per month.
Yes, that’s a minimum of 56 times a month; take it even one step further and multiply it by 12 months, which is a whooping 672 times the wetsuit I was wearing was urinated in per year.
This wetsuit’s model I think may have been discontinued in the 90s so, there’s that, too. You do the math!
Despite my imagination, the suits looked as if they’d been well cared for, and they smelled clean. Fortunately for me, I learned these suits were really only used in the winter months, when the manatees are very sociable and active.
After a quick classroom lecture on what to do, not to do, and a quick video, we took a short drive to the marina where we boarded an old fishing boat and took a pleasure cruise to the estuary. There, the fresh, cold water from the river and the warm, salty oceanic water collide and continually circulate, creating a playground worthy of the great manatee.
While these sea mammals are social creatures, they keep their circles small, usually half dozen or fewer. Their dinner parties are an entire day event where these herbivores chomp on sea grass, mangrove leaves and algae, and don’t stop until they’ve devoured about 10% of their body’s weight.
The operation we chose educated us greatly on the sea mammal.
We learned facts like despite their gargantuan mass of 450-1,300 lbs., these graceful swimmers were often mistaken by Christopher Columbus and other weary seafaring men as female figures swimming in the ocean. These “large women” were the inspiration that birthed the mermaid in drawings, songs, and incredible fish tales.
The 8 to 13-foot swimmers cruise along at 5 miles an hour, and in short bursts, they can swim 15 miles an hour powered by their strong, massive tails.
The sea mammals never leave the water, and when swimming, manatees must surface for air every three or four minutes. Upon surfacing, they replace 90% of the air in their lungs. Compare that to humans who replace a measly 10% of their air per breath.
Manatee calves are born underwater and taught to surface and take their first breath by their mamas. The babies can usually swim on their own an hour after birth. A mama, or cow, gives birth about once every 3 years.
Although protected by law, manatees still face threats. The gentle creatures are frequently hit by motorboats and often become entangled in fishing nets, diminishing their typical 40-year life span in the wild.
It is illegal for humans to harass, touch, or ride manatees upon an encounter. In 2019, there were estimated to be less than 15,000 manatees in the entire world. Nearly half of them spend their lives in Florida rivers and coastal waters.
Once the captain turned off the boat’s motor, we were to swim a short distance to the lagoon. Myself and my wetsuit that had been relieved in a couple thousand times by my calculations were happy to submerge ourselves in the water.
Truth be told, I had too much coffee that morning, and with no bathroom on the boat, I found myself ready to baptize that old suit with my own bladder.
My husband must have had the same idea because he was in the water about the same time as I was. Plop, plop, both kids had taken the cold morning plunge, as well.
We had no idea the treat we were in for. Within minutes of swimming towards the estuary, we encountered our first manatee. It swam right up to my husband and started nibbling on his beard. With wide eyes magnified by his scuba mask, Collin gently pulled his beard out of the mermaid’s mouth.
The cow happily redirected her affection to Pypr, my 12-year-old daughter whose hair was dancing in the water like a beautiful sun-kissed flower. I imagine the floating creature thought it a delightful dessert between her meals. The manatee started gnawing at my wide-eyed, amused, fascinated daughter’s watery tresses.
The sight was breathtaking as Pypr gently ran her hand over the grazing manatee. Her little hand felt the long, coarse hairs on the sweet creature and felt the elephant-like hide, thick and strong.
I had never seen such wonder in the eyes of anyone. The magic I witnessed in that moment alone made my life complete.
I had never experienced such an exhibition of innocence, of peace. They immediately loved and trusted one another.
Pypr let her new friend chew on her hair, and the manatee allowed Pypr to gently run her hand over her back. They watched and smiled at each other in some unexplainable private understanding shared between my child and the young cow.
It was beautiful. I wished my two older children had been there to experience this.
Every direction I turned in the murky water I saw another manatee. Big ones, juvenile ones, males, females, some with what looked like barnacles on their massive tails, some with old wounds, scars from boat propellers, one missing a chunk of its tail.
I’m an outdoor girl. I suffocate surrounded by 4 walls.
I’m a conservationist; I have hunted many species and witnessed the culling of many powerful animals; I’ve seen nature’s creatures give birth and watched old alphas face the challenge of the young.
In every moment, I sense the presence of something much greater and bigger than I am. These gifts, encounters, and experiences are rare and pure—they truly are gifts of God. These extraordinary occurrences help to renew my faith and remind me of divine, pure love.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13.
One day, I swam with mermaids, and I will never be the same.
— Stacy McCloud is a Greeley resident who has experience hunting across the world. She hopes sharing her stories will inspire children, especially girls, to get outside and try archery. Contact her for information on northern Colorado shooting sports at Beautyinthebeasts.firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram: @skingirl.
To donate to help secure a balanced ecosystem for manatees to thrive in contact
To visit my friends in Crystal River, Florida, and receive a 10% discount, ask for Courtney and tell her I sent you: