New Year’s Eve with Manatees!
We had a great, low key couple of weeks in Tampa after getting back from Costa Rica. Travis spent a week back in North Carolina with family over Christmas, my dad and I champion ate, napped, and watched movies while he was away. Very lazy and relaxing.
On New Year’s Eve, Travis and I woke up at about 4:45am to drive north to the Crystal River area to do an early morning swim with manatees. We booked a 7 am trip with River Ventures in Homosassa – it seemed to be a less busy location overall compared to Crystal River, and we knew that tour boats can haul up to 35 people at once to where the manatees congregate – which is in various locations in the area due to the water, which stays at about 73 degrees throughout the year. We didn’t want to be on a boat with 35 people.
We also read that manatees tend to hang in bigger groups when it’s cold out, so early morning trips make for better viewing opportunities.
As a bonus treat for waking up at such an ungodly hour, we saw the super moon set on the way. It was still pitch black when we rolled up at 6:30am, but we discovered there would only be 5 people on our tour. YAS.
Before squeezing into full body wetsuits, we watched a short intro video that explained how to not be an asshole around manatees. No yelling or being loud in general, no kicking or splashing in the water ’cause they can already hear your heartbeat from 7 damn feet away, and you can only touch a manatee if it gives you permission by approaching YOU first, with only one hand. Also, you cannot chase the manatee if it swims away and decides it is done with you. After watching the video, I decided that I would also like to be treated like a manatee.
Once we were all suited up, our guide Shana and captain Evan cruised us down the river into the sunrise. Steam lifted off the water; the temperature was about 53 degrees. We were all pretty pumped to hop into the 73-degree water.
As soon as we made it to the swim site, two manatees approached the boat and started chewing on the ropes. I guess they like chewing on stuff with their big back molars but they are 100% vegetarian and harmless. We were the ONLY boat there! We dropped slowly and quietly into the water with pool noodles to put under our waists and proceeded to dead man float and arms-only doggy paddle all over the area.
The sun wasn’t up yet so it was a bit dark, and the water was murky because there were indeed manatees all over the place but they’d been stirring up the muck on the bottom. They surface for air somewhat frequently, so little manatee snooters were popping out of the water everywhere, 1 and 2 feet from us, but we couldn’t see them unless they were right up in our business.
If these things were anything other than completely harmless and adorable, it would probably be terrifying, because I’d be swimming along and then BAM, a 900-pound sea elephant was RIGHT under me or next to me. Sometimes they will surface under you and you just get to go for a fun full or partial out-of-water ride on its back! Most of the animals had scars on their tails and backs from boats, but apparently they have super thick hides and skin and do heal from it – our captain said that it’s not the boat propellers that will kill or hurt a manatee, it’s when a boat is going fast and hits them that will wipe one out.
We noodled around in the water for about an hour and a half – I had to throw in the towel because I was shivering and couldn’t stop. The wetsuits were great, but the main way anyone keeps warm in cold water is by swimming, and we weren’t swimming because you’re not allowed to kick or splash. But it wasn’t before one of the baby manatees came up to us and gave us a great show!
Afterward we went to the Ellie Schiller Wildlife State Park to see birds, fish, and more manatees. Most of the animals were rehabs from injuries – we saw bald eagles, osprey, foxes, flamingoes (they stink to high heaven!), pelicans, pink spoon bills, herons, a cougar, a bobcat, gators, a hippo, the most adorable ground owl ever, and tons of snook and jack crevalle.
Aaaand that was the extent of our New Year’s partying – we were tired AF once we finally got home and had little to no interest in staying up late – passed out after watching the newest episodes of Black Mirror on Netflix. 😀
We hit the road again on the morning of Friday, January 5th. We wanted to head straight to New Orleans but that’s a bit too far from Tampa for a single day’s drive so we stopped outside of Tallahassee in Chattahoochee at CCC’s Campground. What a great spot! It was a smaller campground amidst pine trees, quiet, not packed (love when this happens), and only $31/night.
CCC’s would have been a great place to hang out for the work week – the WiFi worked well, staff were all super friendly, the facilities were great. It was cold, though! The whole eastern seaboard got hit with bombogenesis so being in Florida we obviously couldn’t complain, but we were surprised that it dipped into freezing temps overnight.
We were warned to leave our tap running, which we did, but we also didn’t want our tanks to fill overnight since we weren’t hooked up to sewer, so we left them on a very slow drip. Apparently it wasn’t enough though, because we woke early in the morning to no running water. Our exterior water hose froze. Oops! We weren’t too worried about bursting pipes since we did have a drip going, but thanks to a couple Google searches, we learned that you can un-freeze the hose connector and regulator with a hair dryer and once you’ve done that, thaw the house out by showering with it.
I actually didn’t BRING a hair dryer on this RV trip (ain’t nobody got time for that) but the RV already had one of those funny little hotel-style hair dryers that we when we bought it that we put under the bathroom sink and left for dead. I’m now thanking our lucky stars that we left it there. It was also fortunate that our campground had lovely indoor facilities (most do, but these were particularly nice and well kept), so the showering part was easy, too.
We put the hose back on afterward just to test the lines and the water started right up again. Then, we dismantled it all and hit the road toward Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
My aunt Sue and Uncle John, veteran RVers, recommended the Hollywood Casino RV Park because it’s close-ish to New Orleans and duh, a casino (Sue is a card shark and also loves her a good casino!). It was also inexpensive at $31/night. We rolled in at about 2pm on Saturday.
Apparently RV park options in and near New Orleans aren’t plentiful and are pricey so we didn’t mind staying an hour away. This RV park was clean, well maintained, and, the best part: nearly empty. We snagged a spot on an empty side and had an entire quadrant of it to ourselves. As it was Saturday night we decided to hit the casino. I hadn’t been inside of one since going to Las Vegas half a million years ago.
I have to admit, it was pretty disappointing, but keep in mind I’m just not a gambler to begin with. Even still, I was game to pop a squat on some slot machines just to see what would happen. My main gripe was that smoking was allowed inside the building and it smelled like every bad decision I’ve ever made between the ages of 18 and 24. Just awful.
The second floor was a non smoking floor but the geniuses who designed the place probably didn’t think about how smoke rises and it actually smelled worse up there than on the first floor. The dinner buffet was also upstairs and if you got close enough you could smell food instead of stale cigarette smoke. I played the slots for approximately 8 minutes before wondering what’s so fun about sitting on your a$$ pushing buttons over and over again.
Travis hit the poker table and I slinked (slunk?) away to drink my terrible, terrible free Zinfandel (of course I should have known it was going to be white zin when I ordered it, but I thought it was going to be RED) inside the mini arcade that had a door I could close and prevent the stench from soaking into my clothing.
I prowled the ground level one more time, looking for some other slot machines to stick a $10 into for funsies and decided that the prevailing sentiment of LED-backlit sadness that permeated the room (not to mention the smell) just wasn’t worth $10. I went back to the RV to make dinner and watch Desperately Seeking Susan on Amazon Prime (I somehow never saw this ’80s movie which blows my mind) while Travis lost $140 over the course of several hours. The house always wins, my friends.
Sunday morning we launched ourselves early toward New Orleans with a pretty solid day plan: coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde, Ramos Gin Fizzes at the Carousel Bar in Hotel Monteleone, oysters at the Bourbon House, a visit to the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, a stop at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, and then to a jazz club or two with whatever remaining time we had in the day.
On our way into the city, a flash flood warning was issued for the entire region, including our campground, for heavy rain throughout the evening and possible floods. As you may or may not already know, we’ve had a few issues with water leaks in our RV. At this point, we’re confident that there aren’t any full blown holes or leaks, but we are also confident that the damn thing just isn’t waterproof in certain places – places we have no way of knowing 100% for sure.
We decided that despite not WANTING to leave earlier than we had to (ie, early Monday morning), it probably made sense to avoid torrential downpours and head for higher (and dryer ground) sooner than later. Our full day in NOLA turned into just a couple of hours, but we achieved the first three things on our list, then beat it to our next stop outside of Houston. Them’s the breaks.
Thus marks the beginning of our Journey Across Texas. Oh, and we’ve renamed the RV from Benjamin Franklin to Murphy because it seems more appropriate.