Swimming with the Manatees, and Diabetes


My two daughters, who are 16 and 12 years old, had the same teacher when they were each in kindergarten. A feature of the teacher’s curriculum was an in-depth study of manatees from every educational angle: social studies, arts and crafts, and environmental science. Lydia and Grace both loved the teacher and the exposure to manatees. It was a dream of theirs to swim with these endangered creatures, which is possible through an eco-tour in Florida, their habitat.

on a boat (l to r): Grace, Lydia, and Jane

This weekend, we did it: we swam with the manatees! I had a conference in Florida and, realizing it was as close as we might ever get to the manatees habitat as a family, I took Lydia and Grace along with me. On Sunday, through a River Ventures tour in Crystal River, Florida, we went out into a boat, donned wet suits and snorkel masks, learned the proper floating technique from Captain Glenn Wilsey (aka Gatorman) and, along with eight other people in our boat, we met the manatees.

the proper floating technique

It was thrilling to fulfill a long-held wish and awesome, in the truest sense of the word, to hover around such huge and gentle creatures. We also loved doing something that for us was really different. We drove 98 miles from Orlando, where we were staying, to the Gulf Coast and saw a part of the country we’d never seen before. Unexpected observation: there are lots of farms and cows in that region.

manatee, aka the sea cow

And, a first for me, I had to figure out what to do with my insulin pump while wearing a wet suit. (Alas, my Minimed Paradigm is not water resistant.) Before I wiggled into the wet suit, I whispered to my daughter Lydia, “Do you think it’s waterproof, and I can wear my pump under it?” She answered dryly, “Mom, why do you think they call it a wet suit?” So I checked my blood sugar before zipping up (BG was 112), disconnected the pump, and stowed it in my bag with our dry clothes and other supplies.

suit on, pump off

Periodically, I would get out of the water, reconnect, take a miniscule bolus, and disconnect again. We were out on the bay for four hours, so I couldn’t just ignore my pump or diabetes the whole time. (I’m comfortable disconnecting for an hour, but that’s about my limit.) I didn’t feel inconvenienced, because we floated pretty close to the boat anyway, and a few times the captain called us back in so that he could motor us over to another site. Everyone was in and out of the boat. That I had to fiddle with my pump and bolus went unnoticed by our fellow travelers.

Still, I thought about this extra layer of preparation to all of life’s adventures when one has type 1 diabetes and relies on an insulin pump. I don’t want diabetes to interfere with these moments. Paradoxically, though, I have to attend to my diabetes carefully so that it won’t interfere in an urgent way. I didn’t want our long-planned encounter with the manatees to be disrupted by a malfunctioning pump, high blood sugar, or personal drama.

As the tour wrapped up, we asked Captain Glenn how far we were from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. We had never been there, and we simply wanted to stand at the water’s edge and have that feeling of being there. I was willing to drive even more than I already had, but I was relieved when he answered that it was only about 10 miles. Even though I needed to get back to Orlando and prepare for the conference that started the next day, the girls and I decided to extend our journey a bit more. After a late lunch at a local hangout called Crackers, we drove out to Fort Island Gulf Beach and did more than stand on the shore. We had another swim, absorbed the southern sun that’s as hot as an iron, and felt as though we made time stand still for an afternoon.

where earth, sky, sea, and a red kite meet

I had no worries. It was a perfect day.

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10 years ago

Thank you for sharing your family story about the manatees. I also have always had a soft spot for them. They are such deep creatures.

Scott K. Johnson
10 years ago

Sounds like a beautiful adventure!

10 years ago

CONGRATS all around!
I swam with the manatees 10 years ago and it was amazing!
Like your daughters, I’d studied them in middle school and have been obsessed with them ever since. 
But at the time,  I was still taking multiple daily injections so I didn’t have to add an insulin pump into the equation.
Jane – GREAT job making your diabetes work while making your children’s dreams come true – YOU ROCK!  
Kelly K 

Michelle Page-Alswager
10 years ago
Reply to  k2

Thanks, Kelly K! That’s cool that you did it too.

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