Chicken soup for the soul, vol. 22
Walking alone on a remote Florida, I was startled to hear splashes and a deep sigh coming from the water.
As I squinted in the direction of the sounds, the rounded gray back of a sea creature rose amid a red froth. Moments later a broad nose emerged and exhaled in a great snuffling breath. It was a manatee, and by the looks of the reddish-colored water and the way it was thrashing, it was in trouble.
I had often watched manatees in these warm coastal waters, but I’d never seen one act like this before. Usually just their big nostrils appear for a gulp of air to green nderwater pastures. But iI also knew how common it was for these lumbering giants to be gashed by boat propellers or entangled in crab traps.
I wanted to help, but what could I do? There was no one else on the beach, and the nearest phone to call the Marine Patrol was miles away.
Tossing my beach bag onto the sand, I began wwading toward the animal, who continued to writhe as if in distress. I was still only waist deep when I came close enough to make out the bristly whiskers on the manatee’s muzzle asit thrust up out of the sea. Then, to my surprise, a second muzzle, much smaller, poked up beside it.
I pushed on through the shoal water, but now the manatees were also moving toward me. Before I knew what was happening, I was in chest-deep water encircled by not one or two, but at least three blimplike bodies. I felt elated and slightly dizzy like the kid who is ‘it’ in a schoolyard game.
A bulbous snout emerged next to me. In the translucent water, I could clearly see the rest of the huge mamal, and there, nestled close behind her, a smaller version of her massive body.
Then, with incredible gentleness for such an enormous creature, the larger manatee nudged the little one with her paddle-shaped flipper and pushed it to the surface beside me. I wanted to reach out and touch the pudgy sea baby, but iI hesitated, not knowing the rules of this interspecies encounter.
As the two slipped back underwater, two other manatees moved in from behind and slid by, oone on either side, rubbing gently against my body as they swam past. They circled and repeated the action, this time followed by the mother and her calf. Emboldened by their overtures, I let my hand graze the side of the small manatee, now clinging to the mother’s back, as they made their pass. Its skin felt rubbery and firm.
The group completed several more circuits. Since they obviously enjoued touching me, I began stroking each of them as they sidled by. When one of them rolled over for a scratch, I knew I had made the right move.
Eventually, my new friends made their way off toward deeper water. I stood anchored to the spot, not wishing to break the spell, until finally the rising tide forced me back to shore.
I suppose I will never know exactly what took place that mrning. I like to think that the manatees included me in their celebration of a birth; that I was welcomed to meet the newest member of their tribe. But over time I have come to cherish the experience without questions.
After that unexpected rendezvous, I felt more in tune with the rhythms of life on this vast planet than I ever have. The memory has become a song I sing to myself when I have the blues, a dance I do to celebrate joy.
And each year, during the last week of May,I pack a lunch and head for that isolated stretch of beach for a quiet little birthday picnic on the shore. After all, you never know who might show up for the party.