Sunday, September 5, 2010
Hour of the Manatee
My first Tony Lowell Mystery and award winner was Hour of the Manatee (St. Martin's 1994), set on the West Coast of Florida. There, years after I wrote that book, I experienced just such an hour, actually closer to two hours, swimming in the Gulf with some of the last of the manatees this past week, as August turned to September in this, the Year of the Tea Bag, 2010.
My sculptor/artist friends Kevin Brady and Susan Super and I were heading for the beach at Ft. DeSoto, on the tip of a cluster of small sandbar and mangrove barrier islands at the mouth of Tampa Bay. It's a county park, and a beauty, often voted America's #1 Beach, with an old fort, a lighthouse, sawgrass dunes and lagoons, pure white sand, mostly clear water (once gin clear), and one helluva lot of mosquitos. They were mini-monsters out of a horror movie or eco-disaster 2012, the worst I had ever seen except for Canada. Skeeters to the left of us, skeeters to the right of us, pouring out of the soggy marshes that stood between us and the beach, and we would have to run the gauntlet to get there. For some reason I seem to be relatively immune to mosquitos, happy to pass me up for younger, sweeter blood. But quickly the others were literally covered, especially poor Susie to whom they were drawn like flies to honey. We forged onward, waded through the bugs, and the marsh, and along the pathway through the sawgrass, over the dunes, through the lagoon, at last to the open beach. And there before us a whole new melodrama unfolded, of people running screaming out of the water like a scene from the original Jaws. I looked south, to where I could just make out a large dark shadow in the water, gray, ominous and fearful, coming towards the fleeing swimmers.
Compulsive as always and heedless of danger, camera in hand, I raced past the fleeing outgoers and into the Gulf for a closer look. I'm not crazy nor foolhardy. I knew this was no pack of Great Whites or tiger sharks looking for a free lunch. I knew it was mammals, or at worst, manta rays. I'd always wanted to see a manta ray. I'd seen a whale shark in Cape Cod Bay once that was 26 feet long, gentle as a lamb, and ate algae. This was a whole pod of manatees, the largest I'd ever seen.
There were six of them, the biggest in the center, ambling slowly along, grazing, nibbling, nudging, sizing each other up, because size matters and these were really big animals, some over ten feet. We had stumbled, in our flight from mosquitoes, directly into the path of a manatee mating ritual, something once in a lifetime to see. The queen was exactly that, biggest of them all, and lorded it among her surrounding male suitors as they nudged us gently aside. Those boys were more than ample protection from any lurking sharks, human or otherwise. It is a fact that manatees are totally shark proof. They are not, however, boat-proof, and whether or not they prove to be people-proof remains to be seen. We petted them like newborn puppies as they swam slowly past, perhaps oblivious to us in their love-throes. They continued on their way, graceful and slow.
Then, after a hundred meters or so, to our utter amazement, they turned and came back. We stood awestruck and waited. The other people on the beach--three couples--cautiously rejoined us in the water. One black West Indian couple had also recognized our new friends as manatees and got their first. The scared-off couple came back, sheepish but also right, because when you're down there in the murky water with something coming towards you, you don't take chances when you don't know what it is. They, twenty-something young professionals, were also in a mating ritual, also fun to watch. The third couple, which had slept through the first encounter up on the beach, came down and joined us as well: two sleepy blue-eyed blond students from Germany, roaming the Coast from New York to New Orleans. They too had been traumatized by the mosquitos, but had forged onwards to the beach like us, and now would be rewarded by a meeting with the manatees. The manatees went by, and came back again, sliding between and among us. This continued for two hours. The Queen was taking her time choosing her mate. She will continue to play hard to get for days to come. What's the hurry when you're a manatee, and being courted by five lusty males? But she'd better hurry. Change is coming, and it's not all going to be good, for a young manatee to face.