Thurs. Sept. 21, 2017:
St. Petersburg to Clearwater, FL:
We had to take a towel from the hotel because we needed it for that morning’s activity: swimming with manatees. We had originally planned on doing this the first time we were in Florida but it didn’t work out. Despite the excitement awaiting us, I was not thrilled about the early wake-up, I had not slept well. Adding to it was the fact that we had not thought ahead and bought snacks. I made the in-room coffee, finished it off with the little packet of coffee whitener and looked at in horror. It was not even the right shade. One sip and I decided I would rather risk a headache than down that swill. I took a pre-emptive Advil but already I was feel not-so-great.
There was a lot of traffic on the road. The GPS took us via a different route, avoiding the freeway and taking a smaller highway that had stop lights whenever it went through a town. It was frustrating because we could not drive fast to make up time. Even though we had left 30 minutes early we were going to be 30 minutes late. We drove past a shop advertising wigs and taxes but other than that the drive sucked. I had to call and let them know we would be running late but we actually ended up arriving 15 minutes earlier than we had expected. We snuck in and started watching the safety introduction video while filling out the waivers. I was expecting a lot more people but it was just going to be us and a Norwegian couple. I was expecting we would be going out in our bathing suits. Instead we were given wetsuits.
It was a short drive down to the dock where the boat was waiting for us. I was not expecting that we would be swimming in a residential bay, basically in peoples’ backyards. We were worried that there was a chance we would not see any manatees. Literally 5 minutes in and already some manatees had been spotted. I found it awkward and difficult to put on the snorkel and mask. I had never been snorkeling before. I could not get used to breathing through my mouth. I made an awkward entrance into the water, trying so hard not to splash or to touch the bottom of the water otherwise I would stir up silt and reduce visibility of the manatees. We were given pool noodles and told to doggy paddle. At our first stop swimming was all but futile. I swam furiously, doing the breast stroke, a side stroke, finally doggy padding. And nothing. I stayed in one spot while the rest of the group managed to swim along with the manatee. Who was impossible to see because of all the silt being kicked up by the manatee eating. Eventually the guide grabbed my pool noodle and helped by pulling me along so I could catch back up to the group. I was not a fan of the strong current. Initially I was not a fan of this excursion. Every time I put my head in the water to look at the silt, I mean manatee, I panicked because I was not used to breathing through a snorkel- it was scary. In the time I had my head down everyone would be further away. Plus I could not wear my glasses under my mask so I was also a little blind. Plus swimming against the current and not getting anywhere is not just physically tiring- it is also mentally tiring. Additionally not having had any coffee or breakfast was not helping. When I took my snorkel out a bunch of saliva dripped out. Oops.
The second stop was a lot calmer and so was I. I had gotten used to the snorkel and now I did not have to fight the current. The only scary thing now was those moments when I would be looking underwater and seeing nothing and then all of a sudden out of nowhere I am inches away from the manatee’s side. I would panic for a moment, terrified of drifting into it. My fingers did brush one. The trouble was there was nothing to push off against or grab hold of as the manatee passed. Steering- when all you had was a pool noodle and instructions not to kick or walk along the ground- was difficult. Also making things difficult was that the manatee would change directions suddenly. I’d be watching it from the side and all of a sudden it would pass underneath me.
Our third stop was Jurassic Spring. This is where the manatees gather in winter in search of warmer water. We saw a giant crevice but I was too afraid to dive down and look at it. While they all swam around and dove down, I floated with my pool noodle. We had a fun photo shoot with our guide. I was glad I had not bought a disposable underwater camera. The water had been too murky plus I would have had a hard time taking pictures. This way we did not have to worry and would just buy them at the end.
On our way back we spotted two pairs of mother and calf manatees. We had an unscheduled stop to look at them. The water was so clear here. We were able to follow them for a while. It was cute to see them eating, brushing their adorable fins along the ground. In the video they had mentioned that if you see a calf swimming alongside the mother with it’s head by her arm, it may be nursing. The water was a bit murky but it seemed like we saw that. The videos our guide took later confirmed it. On the way back in we also saw a turkey vulture and a black vulture hanging out together. Throughout the trip we had been referred to as Canada and Norway. It was so hard to peel off the wet wetsuit afterwards. I did not realize how dry your mouth gets after snorkeling. The whole time we were out there, I only took off the snorkel and mask when we were safely on the boat.
For lunch we went to the plaza across the street, to Wendy’s. The plan was to have a light lunch given we were going to Frenchy’s for grouper sandwiches next. But it was an hour and a half’s drive away and we had yet to eat anything. I was so thankful to finally have a coffee. The manatee place had coffee, but once again only coffee whitener. What was going on, I thought? Similarly when I tried to order coffee with milk at Wendy’s she tried to charge me for a small carton of milk saying they only had creamer for the coffee. I settled for the creamer but was pleasantly surprised to get half and half cream (aka not creamer).
On the road we were fooled at the toll booth. We tried to drive right through but the lady informed us that the tolls had been reinstated as of midnight. I had left my iPod in the car while we were at Wendy’s and now it was giving me and overheated warning with a picture of a thermometer. I waited a bit but it didn’t cool down so I turned it off and on again. The coffee from Wendy’s was enormous and lasted me most of the drive. We stopped at a gas station and I got a glass bottle of Sprite for the bottle cap, cookie filled Reese cups and summer Starbursts.
We took a detour to Clearwater Beach for a second lunch. On the way in we passed a bunch of birds of prey all perched on lampposts. I had read about Frenchy’s and their amazing grouper sandwich in the book Real Food/Fake Food and I really wanted to try it. I ordered the original and Brent ordered the hot buffalo. It was too spicy for me. The sandwiches took a while to make which was fine with me, I was enjoying a really strong blue margarita. Plus it meant the sandwiches would be fresh and I got a chance to order a mojito, this time to actually go with my sandwich. The mojito was delicious, it was made with pineapple rum, club soda and an orange slice. The sandwich was outstanding. All parts of it were amazing. I tried a piece of just the fish on its own, delicious! Easily the best fish sandwich, maybe even the best sandwich, of all time. And it was all so cheap too. The sweet coleslaw on the side was also delicious, but I ate around the pineapple chunks. We were lucky it was not super busy, they had just reopened a few days ago after the hurricane. When the server brought my second drink she mentioned the Frenchy’s passport, if you go to all 5 of their locations and order a signature cocktail you get a free tank-top or t-shirt. I wish I had known about this before. I would not have ordered two drinks at the Original Café, because 3 of the other locations were within a few blocks. We could have started there and then ended with the sandwiches. We were very full after all of that, but we still ordered a slice of key lime pie to go. Clearwater Beach was a nice little town on the waterfront.
As we drove to our hotel I photographed the sunset, a requisite of any Florida vacation. I had not though the glass bottle Sprite purchase through. I could not open it in the car because it required a bottle opener, I was very sad. There was a Publix 3 minutes away from our motel. They conveniently had a separate liquor store, even though we ended up going to both, and the grocery store also had an alcohol section. The liquor store proved to be a bottle cap bohnanza. I got 5 different caps from a variety of ciders and mixed drinks. Especially because the drinks are normally only available in a multi-packs and I never get them because realistically I only want one Mike’s Hard Lemonade, not 6. We went to Publix after to get some Pop Tarts and so I could restock on Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. The pumpkin spice coffee was all sold out but I did get vanilla cupcake and cinnamon roll. We also got some aloe lotion for our poor sun-exposed selves. I bought a package of peach green tea in the hopes that for the rest of our trip I would have access to a kettle.
We got to our motel room and it was like stepping into a time warp. We had an old tube TV that was tiny. But more importantly it had a fridge and at least there was cable. And most importantly: the kitchenette had forks. The key lime pie did not survive the trip. Turns out that key lime pie and Florida heat do not mix. It had melted into a sad little pile, albeit a delicious pile. And it also made for a funny photo. We ended the night watching a special episode of Nathan For You. Even on a small TV it was unbearably awkward at times to watch.