I was with Wayne Hartley – a Florida Manatee expert with the NGO, Save the Manatee Club – canoeing the 600 m of the Blue Spring stream in Florida. I had arranged the day with the club to get first-hand experience of these endearing creatures for my blog, Back from the Brink (Whittles, 2015). It was the sound of frequent nose blowing on the water’s surface that made the experience particularly surreal. It wasn’t a sound that I had expected to hear. But these loud exhalations and intakes of air were a reminder that the aquatic creatures lying on the bed of this naturally warm, spring-fed waterway were mammals – and they needed occasional gulps of air to keep body and soul together. The stream, no more than a metre or two deep, was full of grey-brown, leathery skinned Florida Manatees, the adults 3 m long, their youngsters, some of them suckling, distinctly smaller. They look a little like a (very lazy) chubby dolphin but with a flattened tail and a face a bit like a cow’s. I assume that’s why they are often called Sea Cows.
In this short stretch of water Wayne counted no less than 102 manatees basking in its warmth; sometimes he counts over 300. The manatees idle away the winter months here, requiring warmth because, unlike seals, they don’t have a layer of insulating blubber under their skin. Come springtime, they swim the 240 km back along the St John’s River to the coast where they spend the summer in Florida’s warm coastal waters.
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Gentle vegetarian giants though manatees undoubtedly are, our concern was that a 600 kg adult might come up for air right underneath our canoe, tipping us into the Blue Spring. It was, at least, reassuring to know that the water wasn’t cold and that you can’t get eaten by a manatee. Wayne and I were joking about such an incident (thankfully it never transpired) when a full grown American Alligator slinked past the side of the canoe and hauled out on a part-submerged tree stem.
Its banks shaded by thickets of spiky-leafed Saw Palmetto under a canopy of Southern Live Oaks draped with hangings of Spanish Moss (not a moss and certainly not Spanish but a plant that grows attached to tree bark), Blue Spring is one of Florida’s manatee public viewing sites. It attracts tens of thousands of people each winter who come to admire these remarkable and endearing animals. Stand on one of the riverside viewing platforms constructed for the purpose and these lumbering giants are very close to you in the water below. But from the canoe their closeness was simply magical. We glided slowly over them as they lay on the riverbed or sat alongside them as they meandered up to the water’s surface, exhaled air and took a deep breath before effortlessly drifting back down to rest once again. It seemed like a very relaxed lifestyle.
When animals are resting – or hibernating through the cold winter – it is possible to get very close to them. The important precaution is not to touch them or disturb such deep sleep. It was to see some hibernating mammals that I found myself being taken one day into a maternity wing as dark as a mole, shuffling uncomfortably along its dusty, uneven, stone-flagged floor. To make sure we caused the minimum of disturbance, we spoke in low whispers, and only then if it was essential. In the faint, yellow glimmer of our dim torches I could make out rough brick walls, an occasional pile of coal and some rusting, long-disused boilers. Creepy, certainly, but at least the place was dry and warm. Outside it was cool and a persistent drizzle had set in.
‘Through that gap,’ whispered Jean Mathews, a mammal expert who then worked with me at the Countryside Council for Wales and who was leading me in this subterranean place of birth. ‘Look up there, you’ll see them when your eyes get accustomed to the dark,’ she said, pointing to a hole in a brick wall. This grime-covered maternity department wasn’t, of course, part of some NHS hospital from hell. This was bat nirvana. Lesser Horseshoe Bat nirvana to be precise. Here, in the cellars of Glynllifon Hall, a former stately home near Caernarfon in North Wales, is Europe’s largest known breeding colony of these tiny mammals. In recognition of its importance, the colony – and the building – are both protected by the EU’s Habitats Directive.
Peering up through the gloom, as my eyes slowly get accustomed to the dim light, I could eventually see what Jean is pointing at. Hundreds of bats, each no bigger than a large plum, hanging like little parcels on thread-legs from the blackened ceiling. Sleeping the day away in darkness. No wonder they look so small with their wings folded in; an adult weighs no more than 8 g.
The Glynllifon site is unusual because the cellars serve as both a hibernating site and a maternity roost. A small amount of heating has been installed in the maternity roost whilst the colder reaches of the cellars provide the cool but stable temperatures and high humidity that these bats need for hibernation in winter. Jean tells me that these aren’t true hibernators but instead they enter a state of torpor where their temperature drops and their metabolism slows to save energy. So whenever the winter weather warms enough for insects to be on the wing, these Lesser Horseshoes will wake to fly outside and hunt at night. Moths, lacewings, small wasps and dung flies are high on the Lesser Horseshoe menu, snapped up in their thousands each summer’s night.
‘There’s only one entrance, high up on the cellar wall, so they stream out of there at dusk and back at dawn when they’re breeding. We know there are several hundred of them because we have an automated counter at the entrance,’ Jean tells me as we crouch down and whisper, determined to cause no disturbance. By mid-winter when we were there, only 100 or so bats remain in the cellars, hibernating in characteristic hanging parcel fashion from the ceilings in the unheated part. The rest disperse to other cool winter roosts including some long-disused copper mines several kilometres away, also a protected site.