First came the sound: an airy “poooof.” Then two sizeable nostrils spraying water emerged, followed by a blubbery, bewhiskered face. The massive mother manatee lifted her head and lingered at the surface momentarily to breathe in some oxygen. Beside her, just below the surface, floated her three-foot-long calf, about a third of her body length.
I couldn’t believe my luck. These slow-moving aquatic mammals can hold their breath for 20 minutes—and I wasn’t even sure that I had paddled into the right branch of the river as I’d been almost running aground the whole way.