- Do not attempt to ride, poke, prod, stab, or grab the manatee at any time with any object including your hand or foot.
- Do not chase or corner a manatee while swimming or diving.
- Do not disturb a resting manatee. Sleeping manatees sometimes rest in a “face-plant” on the river bottom, rising for air every few minutes. It is unlawful to interfere with these normal activities.
- Do not attempt to feed the manatees or give them water. Doing so may make the manatee associate food and water with humans, endangering the manatee.
- Do not attempt to single out or surround a manatee.
These are the instructions we’re given by John, our tour guide at Birds Underwater, as he chirps them out in a well rehearsed high pitch squeal. Shortly after our Friday morning flight into Gainesville, we sped down Highway 121 into Crystal River, Florida, home to some of the most fertile grounds for Manatee encounters on earth. The spring fed waters of the Kings Bay habitat maintain a lukewarm 72 degrees year round, the perfect sanctuary for Manatees retreating from colder winter temperatures.
While in Florida I wanted to find a few outdoor adventures to explore, and splashing around the tepid waters of the Crystal River seemed like the perfect escape from strip mall hell. My frame pressed snugly into a neoprene wetsuit, John finishes taking us through the guidelines for proper manatee etiquette before we load into the pontoon boat for a private guided tour. I make a mental note to be sure not to “stab” a manatee per John’s instruction, wondering what kind of cretin needs such a warning…
Motoring out into the lagoon, we learn to pick out the manatees from a distance by looking for bubbles on the surface, their mammoth bodies lumbering like dark shadows beneath. Once spotted, we dive in into the crystal water and casually swim over for a closer look. The clear waters swarm with fish; Mullets, Snook and Mangro Snapper, but Manatees are the feature attraction. Up close the 1,500lb goliaths are gentle, approachable creatures, with inquisitive soft brown eyes as we stare at one another. Their barnacle covered skin rough to the touch, most of them bear handfuls of deep scars from encounters with speed boat propellers. It’s a rare experience to be up close and personal with such a massive animal in their own environment, especially one that isn’t trying to eat you.
Though impressed with the mellow mammoths, in some ways I feel bad for the manatees. In order to be protected they have to endure throngs of foppish tourists piling out of pontoon boats, toting their braying brats and huddling around like hordes of neoprene sausages. Every time a manatee is spotted by one boat, a dozen others quickly moor alongside, unloading mobs of these clumsy fluorescent goons to surround the peaceful giants. I surmise it’s no accident when speed boats occasionally collide with a manatee, often with lethal results. I think the gentle creatures deliberately hurl themselves in front of anything with enough speed to end things quickly. Seppuku by Seadoo – a warriors death. It sounds like a far more palatable alternative than suffering a lifetime of dealings with your average gape jawed, croc wearing, American family tourist.
But an afternoon in the water is splendid, and a private tour offers us a more intimate, respectful experience that allays my gag reflex to all things touristy. We finish off the evening at Charlie’s Fish House, one of the few dining options in town. Florida Stone Crabs are in season, and I order up a couple platters of the fresh, meaty red claws. Lightly steamed with just a touch of butter, the sweet crab is a perfect finish to the day as we watch the sun settle over Kings Bay.
Saturday morning the day starts early in Gainesville, and after a hearty breakfast at the Sweetwater Inn we shuffle down the broken sidewalk towards campus. Streets are surprisingly empty for a game day, and not until we get within a block of the stadium do they become swarmed thick with bright blue and orange dry fit polo shirts. A noon kickoff is clearly the culprit. Nobody has enough time to properly pregame before marching into the stadium. Another unwelcome byproduct of television influence, early start times are completely debilitating to an energetic gameday atmosphere. Particularly in Florida, where the scorching mid day sun reaches its zenith over the stadium, most people would rather be camped out under a few shade trees with a cooler full of beer. SEC games always seem better at night…
As the morning sun climbs higher into the sky, I instantly regret my decision to wear jeans. I should have taken cue from the flood of polos, khaki shorts and flip flops around me, the official uniform of SEC fandom. The ensemble would be complete with a swoop haircut, team sun visor and matching colored “croakies” – the elastic bands attached to one’s sunglasses, keeping the shades well affixed should they decide to spontaneously leap from one’s well coiffed head. The fashion could be worse I suppose – I could be at a Big 10 game.
We walk down the palm lined terrace to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the soaring grandstands towering overhead. Approaching the entrance, a small sign commemorates the birthplace of Gatorade by UF researcher Robert Cade, while a giant bronze statue of former Heisman winter Tim Tebow flanks the gates. With a stated capacity of 88,000 “The Swamp” as it’s more commonly referred, routinely packs in more than 90,000 boisterous fans, and is one of the most feared venues in the SEC.
As the game kicks off, it’s quickly evident to the Missouri Tigers, newly minted to the SEC, why the Swamp is such an intimidating place to play. Despite the oppressive mid day sun, the crowd roars each time the Gators stifling defense takes the field, thousands of arms outstretched, clapping fiercely in unison to the infamous “Gator Chomp”. A defensive standoff sets in on the field, as both teams lock horns in trench warfare. Although they move the ball, Tiger quarterback James Franklin is picked off four times. The fast paced Mizzou offense is grounded by the Gators, managing their only touchdown on the day in the second quarter when they take the lead into halftime 7-0.
The Gators anemic offense doesn’t score until the 3rd quarter, when they knot the game at 7 apiece. As the fourth quarter opens, the Gators connect on a huge 45 yard touchdown pass to Mike Gillislee to take a 14-7 lead. The close score makes for a dramatic 4th quarter, both teams battling fiercely as Mizzou fights to tie it up. With 1:49 left, Missouri launches their final attack from deep in their own territory. Needing a touchdown to score, they move the ball 60 yards downfield to the Gator 20 yard line with only a few ticks remaining and one final shot at the end zone. 90,000 bodies hang in the sweltering Florida air for James Franklin’s final throw, which lands anticlimactically into the outstretched arms of Florida DB Josh Evans, a game ending turnover. Franklins’ fourth interception on the day is his most costly, and the Gators skate away with a narrow victory in a barnburner.
After the game, the drama is hardly over. We retreat into The Swamp, a landmark bar in Gainesville that’s ranked annually on the list of best college bars in the country. Situated on the corner of University Ave and 17th Street, the bar is a converted Victorian home that features an impressive outdoor lawn space. Escaping the sun, we shoehorn into the crowded pub, wedging into the corner of a communal table and order up a couple icy buckets of Yuengling lager from one of the waitresses flitting around in skin tight outfits. A stuffed alligator hangs from the ceiling over the bar, and dozens of flat screen TV’s flash away with various SEC broadcasts. With the Irish game underway, I vigilantly try to persuade the bartender to put the game on one of the small, unobtrusive TV’s in the corner, even offering him a ten dollar tip for hitting a button on a remote. He refuses, and, looking at me coldly, informs me that “we only watch SEC games here, son”. Disgusted with this vile affront, I slam the remainder of my Yuengling, marching out the exits towards the multitude of sports bars lining University Ave.
We slide into the Gator Zone, a non-descript college pub, chosen because it was the first place that met my exacting criteria of beer, TV and NBC. There, I spend the rest of the evening glued to a single television set perched over the bar, watching the Notre Dame versus Pittsburgh debacle unfold before me. A triple overtime nail biter, I’m ranting like a lunatic with each play as the Irish battle back and forth. Slamming my fists on the pine countertop and unleashing streams of light beer induced profanity at the dramatic swings; I draw a few raised eyebrows from the khaki crowd in Gator country. Chrissy cowers next to me with embarrassment.
In the end the Irish prevail, and I narrowly avoid an early escort from the Gator Zone security staff looming over my shoulder. We spend the rest of the evening watching the appropriate SEC game, Alabama vs LSU, prevalently showing on every single television screen in the dark pub. But the next time I make it to Gainesville, I’d rather be watching the SEC night game of the week inside the raucous confines of The Swamp, with 90,000 others screaming into the humid Florida night air. The way SEC football is meant to be.
Special thanks again to a good friend for tickets, I owe you a few beers in Miami man…
Thanks again to Chrissy for joining me on another adventure, and perhaps your Tigers will fare better on an SEC roadtrip next year…
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