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All Eyes photo gallery: Love is in the air (and in the water)

Most of us are familiar with the adage "Love Is in the Air" – and I was certainly feeling that when I picked up my 8-year-old daughter, Sierra, from camp and ventured into Fort De Soto for a mother-daughter afternoon swim.

But never did I imagine, as we treaded happily in the warm gulf, that love was actually in the water. Sierra noticed the splashes first. Large dark shapes down the shore, splashing and churning the shallow waters and making a ruckus. She had to know what it was, and quickly exited the water and ran down the shore to find out. I struggled to keep up with her, water bottles, towels and phone in hand, ready for whatever we'd find or however long we'd be down there. As I drew closer to the commotion, I became increasingly alarmed. It appeared to be a manatee in distress, stranded on the shore, perhaps tangled in a rope line, and not just one but there appeared to be several. I quickened my pace, while searching on my phone for the number to animal rescue, my finger ready to make the call if necessary.

As we approached the herd, we counted nearly seven manatees all seemingly piled up on one another.

LEARN MORE: A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission video explains about manatee mating herds and how we need to keep our distance

Thankfully there weren't any boats around except for a few fishing boats further out. These beautiful creatures already looked like they'd had their fair share of close encounters. Deep scars marked their otherwise smooth bodies.

One manatee had what Sierra referred to as bubble back syndrome from smacking the bottom of a boat. Another flipped up its tail to reveal a perfectly squared chunk of missing flesh, no doubt the doing of a boat propeller. The scars were immediately sobering to look at, but my earlier alarm slowly disappeared as I realized that here on the shore, these animals were not in distress.

IF YOU SEE A MANATEE: Manatees are a protected species. Here are guidelines for viewing them

They were frollicking, rolling in the sand, nudging each other, playful, content, each one vying for the attention of one rather large female, that I will refer to as "Big Mama." At first we thought the herd was a group of babies nursing from their mother, slipping and climbing over each other to get to the milk source. But then I remembered learning from our trips to the S. Florida museum to see Snooty, that a female manatee typically gives birth to only one calf at a time.

That's when it dawned on me that these playful manatees were actually a group of males trying desperately to mate with one estrous female. Nature's way of guaranteeing the survival of a species. As my daughter went underwater with her swim goggles to get a better look, but being careful not to get too close, I stood in the shallows and marveled at Big Mama.

With the exception of an occasional flick of her enormous tail, an indication that she was a bit annoyed with all the attention, she was nonetheless extraordinarily patient with the young bucks. Love was certainly in the water. But in a different way.

There was no matchmaking happening here, but rather, as I watched Sierra absorb this incredible moment, I realized that the love here in these waters, was actually the start of what would surely become the most beautiful love of all… the love between a mother and child.

Samantha Staley | Special to the Times

Samantha Staley | Special to the Times

Samantha Staley | Special to the Times

Samantha Staley | Special to the Times

Samantha Staley | Special to the Times

Samantha Staley | Special to the Times

Samantha Staley | Special to the Times

Please visit the Times image archive to license or purchase a reprint of any of the above images.

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