So, I jump in the water with a snorkel, mask, and a foot-wide metal window scraper. After removing seagrass and barnacles from the fiberglass dinghy and plastic kayak, I make two trips around the sailboat, scraping as far down the hull as I can reach without my snorkel filling up with water. I’ve been in the water for about an hour.
The sole of my foot brushes something flat and soft and feels like a patch of grass on one of the concrete pillars supporting our dock. I pull my foot away to avoid cutting it on an oyster, but when I glance up, I see the pillar is in front of me.
I turn around to meet eye-to-eye with a vertically floating manatee, roughly twice as long as my body.
I slowly back away, struggling in vain to take calm, deep breaths. I scuttle up the kayak and rapidly knock on the boat as the underwater blimp follows me, maintaining eye contact. Steve produces from the boat and answers my question with, “It probably could hurt you, but I don’t see why it would.” I splashlessly lower my self back into the water and put my mask back on.
The foggy, blue eyes calm me the way a great-grandmother greets you in the morning without words. I carefully show her my palm and she mirrors with her fin as if she remembers me, but this is the first time I’ve swum with one of these in this life.
My hand rests on the grey, elephant-like skin for a couple of seconds before the manatee does a ballet spin. The centimeter-long gray hairs brush under my finger tips with the subtlety of tickling air bubbles. I cannot detect a heartbeat, ribs, or any change in texture as I feel 180° around the waist of the massive mammal. Just the same heatless leather with the response of a mud-pie.
After a few minutes, my lungs relax enough to fill with enough air to make me buoyant. Floating as easily in the salt water as the beast, I begin to notice small distinctions on the belly including a seam connecting one orafice to another, newly discovered and growing orafice.
The hole opens and something camo-green emerges. She drops a deuce and I vamoose, laughing through my snorkel.