It is an early March morning on the Crystal River. Very early morning. My family is sitting and shivering in the helm of a pontoon-style boat, even though we’re clothed in black wetsuits. I’m thinking that this trip better be worth it, worth the long drive from Atlanta to mid-western Florida, worth this painful, pre-dawn rising, worth the efforts to tug a tight, thick wetsuit over my less then sleek frame as well as over the torsos of two wiggling children, worth the scowl on my husband’s face.
It is spring break, the first week in March, and the tail end of the season for the West Indian Manatee’s winter sojourn here. The manatee likes his water slightly warm, and the Crystal River is said to never fall below 72 degrees. We’ve come in hopes of swimming beside him and his buddies before they all head out to the Gulf of Mexico for the spring.
Then the burly young boat captain gives us the bad news.
“I’m going to be honest with you guys,” he says. “Yesterday’s boat didn’t see a single manatee. If you’da come a week or two ago, you mighta seen 50 manatees on the tour. But I’m afraid they’ve all left.”
I am too timid to look at my husband’s and children’s faces. This trip was my big idea.
“We’ll still go out and look around,” the captain promises. “And if we don’t see any manatees, we’ll refund your money. I just don’t want you to get your hopes up.”
And we’re off into the gray dawn on the flint-colored river.
Now, I am one determined mama.
I stand at the helm like a wilderness scout, one hand over my eyes, and I scan the watery horizon, looking for I’m not sure what. As the sun rises higher, it sets the river to sparkling and chases the mist off of the marsh. But those sights alone won’t do. Ten minutes go by, along with the river, 15, 20, 30. My shoulders sink a bit.
Almost everyone on the boat has quit looking for manatees by now. The adults have all struck up a friendly conversation. Only my children look worried.
And then I spot something far ahead, I think. If my eyes are not deceiving me, I see a bit of gray rise above the water, like a small whale breaching. My heart pounds.
“There!” I shout, “There, is that one?”
The captain follows my finger and smiles. “Yep,” he says, “You’ve got you some good eyes.”
My husband slaps me on my wet-suited rump and my kids do a little jump where they sit. The other adults on the trip start rooting around for their snorkel gear. The captain accelerates the engine, which is still no more than a gentle drone, and we make our approach.
When we get closer to where we believe the manatee is submerged, the captain cuts off the engine and tells us we will need to swim out 50 yards or so. We excitedly put on our flippers and masks and ease into the water. Seventy-two degrees sounds warm enough, but it is actually not warm at all – or else it is just not 72 degrees. And then there is the effort of trying to swim with a wetsuit on. The buoyancy factor is significant, and I can’t make any progress until I figure out that you actually have to skim the surface for the full length of your body to get ahead.
But my son can’t figure this out at all. My husband and daughter glide ahead, but he begins to panic. I’m desperate that his shouts will scare off our sole hope of swimming alongside the elusive manatee. I attempt to console and encourage him while keeping the two of us afloat and moving forward. I hook his arm into my elbow and breast stroke with the other arm in the direction of the air bubbles.
And then she rises, her cute, fat, friendly nose just breaking the surface as she turns and looks at us. The sight is enough to quiet my son for a moment and to thrill the rest of us. My husband offers to take him for me, and I’m off in the direction of the nose, which has just disappeared again.
Another man from the boat is swimming beside me and he brings his head out of the water, takes his mask off, and says, “Did you see her just now?”
“No,” I say.
“Well, she’s right under you,“ he tells me.
Now it’s my turn to panic. A nine-foot, half-ton manatee in the dark water below me? That’s just a little too close for comfort.
And then she is right next to me in the water and I reach out and touch her, stroke her actually, stroke the long scars some motorboat propeller has left across her back, and the bits of crust and algae that have attached themselves to her, as if she were a river rock. It is an electric touch, one of those man and beast moments that makes you feel that the world is smaller than you thought and all connected and full of wonder and joy.
The next thing we know, there are two more manatees coming down the river to join us, making little snorting sounds. They, too, swim close enough for us to touch, close enough to thrill us for the rest of our lives.