Walking alone on a remote beach in southwest Florida, I was startled to hear splashes and a deep sigh coming from the water just offshore1.
As I squinted2 in the direction of the sounds, the rounded gray back of a sea creature rose amid a red froth, rolled turbulently at the surface, then sank back into the Gulf3. Moments later a broad nose emerged and exhaled4 in a great snuffling breath. It was a manatee5, and by the looks of the reddish-colored water and the way it was thrashing, it was in trouble.
I had often watched manatees6 in these warm coastal7 waters, but I'd never seen one act like this before. Usually just their big nostrils8 appeared for a gulp9 of air as they foraged10 on sea grasses or swam slowly to greener underwater pastures. But I also knew how common it was for these lumbering11 giants to be gashed12 by boat propellers13 or entangled14 in crab15 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 Marine16 Patrol was miles away.
Tossing my beach bag onto the sand, I began wading17 toward the animal, who continued to writhe18 as if in distress19. I was still only waist deep when I came close enough to make out the bristly whiskers on the manatee's muzzle20 as it thrust up out of the sea. Then, to my surprise, a second muzzle, much smaller, poked21 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 translucent22 water, I could clearly see the rest of the huge mammal, 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 flipper23 and pushed it to the surface beside me. I wanted to reach out and touch the pudgy sea baby, but I hesitated, not knowing the rules of this inter-species encounter.
As the two slipped back underwater, two other manatees moved in from behind and slid by, one 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 calf24. Emboldened25 by their overtures26, 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 like an old fashioned hot water bottle.
The group completed several more circuits. Since they obviously enjoyed touching27 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 towards 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 morning. 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.
During that unexpected rendezvous28, I felt more in tune29 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 blues30, a dance I do to celebrate joy.
And each year, during the last week of May, I pack a lunch and head for that isolated31 stretch of beach for a quiet little birthday picnic on the shore. After all, you never know who might show up for the party.