Maria, Kona, and Riley: Meeting Manatees on Florida’s Fresh Water
Story and Photos Contributed by Ruffwear Ambassador Maria Christina Schultz
Ask me what the highlight of my three-week road trip was!
Paddling with manatees and my dogs is a combination that’s been on my SUP bucket list for years. I’m stoked to say this one has been crossed off!
I’d seen manatees several times on previous trips, but the dogs had yet to share the experience with me. The first time I was on a kayak tour, and the second time I went swimming with them. Both experiences were magical; there’s something extraordinary about these beautiful gentle giants that’s hard to put into words. I couldn’t help but plan a way to bring the dogs with me the next time.
For this trip, I did my homework. Homosassa River allows dogs to be on the river from private launches, so we sought a private boat or kayak launch that allowed dogs. We found a great little RV park on the Homosassa River named Camp and Water. They have a private boat launch a short walk from the RV sites. We put in from our campground and paddled 3 miles up river to the headspring. The headspring is where manatees migrate to from October to April for the perfect 72-degree water.
Paddling up river with 90 pounds of Australian Shepherds was a bit of a physical challenge, but it was well worth it.
I also made myself a promise before heading out: If the dogs were stressed or nervous about seeing such huge creatures in the water, or if they barked and upset the manatees, we would abort the paddle immediately.
Turns out I didn’t need a back up plan. The dogs were as curious about the manatees as the manatees were of them! Riley and Kona inquisitively peered over the rails to watch the manatees play, swim, and splash around our board. The manatees approached us from the side a few times and I could see their small black eyes getting a closer look. Riley even got a few inches from the nose of one, nearly getting a kiss! Watching my dogs respectfully observe the manatees was remarkable. I have to say, I’m so proud of how well behaved they were, and that I can share experiences like this with them.
At points the manatees got playful as they swam back and forth under our board. Manatees are known to bump up on the bottom of kayaks and SUPs – they aren’t being aggressive, they’re simply goofing around. An unexpected bump like this would probably knock the three of us into the drink. So when the manatees started swimming under our board I knelt and kept the dogs close. The manatees were probably just showing off in front of the dogs.
Comparing this manatee experience to my first two, this one was certainly the most special!
Besides manatees, we also saw dolphins, pelicans, tons of fish, osprey, and monkeys, yes – you read that right – monkeys! There was a small island in the Homosassa River with about six monkeys hanging around. They kept moving to lower branches on to get a better look at us. We kept our distance though, no need for extra passengers.
And we also saw one alligator.
Anytime we paddled in fresh water in Florida I was, of course, highly concerned about running into an alligator. So like anything else we attempt – we did our research. I talked to locals and asked park staff what I should be looking for, and how to be safe.
First, I learned in the cooler winter months gators are less active – check, it was definitely cooler. Second, most gators don’t want to be bothered with anything larger than them – check, we were on a 12.5’ board. Gators also don’t like anything above them – so again standing on a board made me more of a threat to them. Now I did NOT let Riley and Kona swim or enter the water at any point on these paddles. Before launching at both parks, I asked the park staff if anyone had reported seeing any gators. Nobody saw any in Rainbow Spring, but there was one on the riverbank at Silver Springs named Samson. With lots of other kayakers, boaters, and park patrols in the water, I felt safe with my decision to paddle. I was also with my husband, so we weren’t alone. Other friendly kayakers on the water told us exactly where he was so we knew what to look for. When we passed Samson on the bank, he was sleeping. We kept a very big distance and just left him alone.
During our trip I avoided paddling in remote rivers with the dogs in general, and stuck to the highly traveled State Parks. I also trust my dogs to behave on our board – if I tell them to sit any stay they’re really awesome about it. A big part of why I can take them on these paddles is because their training is solid; we’ve worked at this for years.
I can’t stress it enough – consistent training is the key to having two adventure dogs I can take almost anywhere. Riley will turn 11 this year, and we still train and work together on a daily basis. This trip really proved that for me. I hope this helps inspire more people to work with their dogs so they can have awesome adventures too!
Maria Christina Schultz is an outdoor enthusiast, American Canoe Association-certified stand up paddleboard instructor, and author of two books. Her dogs Riley and Kona are her constant companions while paddling, camping, mountain biking, and running. Follow along with all of their adventures on Instagram.