Living His Dream: Swimming With the Manatees

Swimming With Sea-Cows: Living a Dream and Honoring a Legacy

It comes as no surprise that I love the water, and it played a central role in my "dream" as part of the "Good Morning America" Living the Dream series.

It's a dream that started when I was a child, watching a world of adventure unfold before my very eyes on television shows such as "Wild Kingdom." "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" was one of my favorite shows.

Every week brought another journey to the ocean floor with Jacques and son Phillipe, and they helped inspire my childhood dream to become a marine biologist and help injured manatees.

Jacques Cousteau's grandson, also named Phillipe, carries on the family tradition, hosting nature shows and heading an environmental nonprofit.

VIDEO: The "GMA" anchor swims with manatees and lives his dream.
Sam Champion Swims With Manatees

"I have to credit my mom for that," Phillipe Cousteau said. "You know, my father died six months before I was born and despite that, she kept his legacy and his work. And, of course I knew my grandfather, until I was about 17 when he passed away."

With a living legacy of the Cousteau family name, I went in search of the endangered gentle giant, the manatee.

About half a dozen of the so-called "sea-cows" are released into a national refuge in Florida every year.

CLICK HERE to learn more about manatees and find out how you can adopt one.

Manatees are an endangered species, and at the refuge they are monitored around the clock and rehabilitated after injuries from boating accidents, cruelty from divers and swimmers and even a frigid cold winter.

Out on the river, our boat's transmitter zeroed in on a healthy manatee named Baby Coral. Once crystal clear, the river is murky now and I couldn't see the manatee until she was directly underneath me.

But once I did, I couldn't believe how beautiful she was.

Our guide, Buddy Powell, has been doing this for more than 40 years, and he appears in the documentary "The Forgotten Mermaid," shot on the same river with Jacques and Phillipe Cousteau Sr.

The film was the first ever to bring attention to the manatees' struggle with civilization.

At Least 500 Manatees Have Died This Year

Our trip was a first for Phillipe, as well. It was his first time on the river where the father he never knew made film history.

"It's one of those experiences that allows me to get closer to my dad," he said. "And to that legacy. The manatees were in trouble back then and they still are."

Dr. David Murphy has been treating injured manatees at the refuge for 20 years and says this is the worst year he has ever seen because of Florida's record-cold temperatures.

Nearly 500 died between January and March, which is usually the death toll for an entire year.

Some of the lucky survivors are at the refuge.

"What we do is help them get better," Murphy said.

A manatee named "Mill," a nearly 1,500-pound female rescued in March, suffers from cold stress, the equivalent of frostbite for a manatee.

Mill and her manatee pals are on the road to recovery, but 40 years after the first film on manatees, they remain nature's innocent underdogs.

CLICK HERE to learn more about manatees and find out how you can adopt one.

CLICK HERE to learn more the Lowry Park Zoo.

CLICK HERE to visit Dr. James "Buddy" Powell's Sea to Shore Alliance Website.

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