We were staying at an RV park near Tampa Bay, Florida and I decided to take our much-neglected kayak for a cruise around the bay’s northern end; Old Tampa Bay. I put in behind a kayak rental store and took the stream under route 19 and out into the bay. It was a beautiful day; a bit chilly, but dry and warm enough in my sit-in kayak to be really enjoyable. But at that point, I had no idea of the adventure that awaited me.
I spotted a couple of porpoise up ahead and followed them, hoping to stay close enough to watch them do their thing. I paddled along a channel that led out into the bay. On either side of the deep water it was shallow; only a few feet deep at high tide. I saw the porpoise quickly cut across the shallow area and disappear far up ahead. Disappointed, I continued following the deep water of the channel until it took me around a waterside condo complex to the rear of a mobile home community. I paddled up and down the canals that divided the community until, tiring a bit, I stopped paddling and sat “idling” some 20 yards out in the bay. I began chatting with a nice lady sitting out in her backyard, her saying how nice it must be for me to be out on the water, and me saying how much she was right, when something went thump into the bottom of my boat.
I froze, concentrating less on what the lady was saying at that point than on what had just thumped me. It was a good, solid thump. I expected, no hoped, that it was a log, or other flotsam that may have drifted along with the channel’s current until it ran into me. But there was no log, or anything else, visible all around my boat. I sat perfectly still, frozen in place, now worrying. After holding my breath for a while, I told the lady what had just happened. I then learned that there were large sharks in the area. The nice lady confirmed seeing one just the other day as its fin cut through the water, just-about-where-I-was-floating. She said it was a BIG ONE. Oh goody, I thought. As surfers know, sharks often come up beneath potential prey and give them a bump, checking, I guess, on whether the object above them is alive and possibly on whether it might be tender and tasty.
After a few more moments, when nothing appeared from beneath my little boat or decided to give me a heart attack by thumping me again, I waved a goodbye to my new friend, joined now as comrades by an exciting story we could tell our friends. I paddled — very cautiously — kayaks can be tippy buggers — into a nearby canal offering shallower water and somewhere away from the deeper water and whatever monster lurked below.
The canal was the entrance into a marina used by the condo community. I could see a floating dock and several boat slips up ahead. I could also see a couple of kids directing a stream of water from a hose down into the water. There was something in the water that seemed to be drinking from the hose. As I paddled closer, always the curious one, I realized that it was a large manatee, or sea cow, also once thought to be a mermaid. All I can say is whoever thought that a manatee was a mermaid must have had more than their usual allotment of grog that day.
They look more like a mythical beast; part cow, part dog or maybe walrus, and part fish; the tail end. The one I found myself floating next to was maybe eight feet long and showed no fear of me or my boat. It had just resurfaced as I approached and was lying motionless, with just its broad back visible above the water. It looked like a large truck inner tube covered with short, wide-spaced, bristly hair. For some reason; I have know idea why, but I just do stuff like this all the time, I decided to “scratch” the manatee’s back with my paddle.
At first, the manatee didn’t react at all; it just floated next to me, motionless. I started to question why I was poking this probably half-ton creature with my paddle; not knowing whether I might anger it, when it slowly began rolling over in the water until, belly up, it stared straight at me. Uh oh, I thought, this is where the yelling and screaming usually starts. But there seemed to be no aggression at all; it just lay there looking up at me. It had no neck; its head just merged with the rest of its very large, corpulent charcoal-gray body. Its face reminded me of a huge Labrador retriever dog; it had large, sad eyes, nostrils and jowls studded with bristles — no visible ears. After communicating silently for several more moments, it occurred to me that, like my dog, maybe the manatee would appreciate a tummy rub. Oh, I told you that I don’t know why I do these things, I just do them (my DW often wonders out loud how it is that I’ve lived as long as I have).
Well the manatee seemed to enjoy the tummy rub as much as it enjoyed my giving it a backrub; at least I think it enjoyed it; it’s hard to tell with manatees, they’re not exactly demonstrative; you know what I mean? The only problem I had at that point was that the more I rubbed its belly with my paddle, the further we drifted apart. Another brilliant idea occurred to me and I reached out with my free hand and took hold of its front paw, err, paddle, or I guess, its flipper. Once again, no reaction of any kind, except a feeling of trust and a lack of fear. Its flippers were short, broad and tipped with large, flat fingernails. There was no thumb or ability to wrap its flipper around things; so I had to do the holding.
Throughout all of this, I had only faintly heard the amazed comments of the boys that were watching from above; so focused as I was on what was happening down there. It was amazing! This huge creature, so used to being hacked at by careless boater’s engine props, should have been terrified by me. Instead, it just lay there, staring intently into my eyes, while I held its hand, so to speak, and scratched its tummy. Sometimes life just blows my mind.
BTW, I probably broke some law or other by approaching and touching the manatee but, as far as I could tell, the manatee didn’t mind it at all.
Till next time,