Man and Manatee

*The image above is a representation of the experiences described here.The difference between the image and my experience is that I was equipped with only mask and snokel.*Last week, just off Sombrero Beach in Marathon, Florida, I had the rare opportunity of encountering a full-grown manatee while snorkeling in about 10 feet of water. Very warm currents were moving through the Keys that day and evidently, this sea cow had followed them to about 75 yards from the beach.I was with five other snorkelers. We swam along side of the manatee, dived down to see her entirety, and observed our huge visitor for about 15 minutes. At that point, we lost sight of her and headed back toward shore raving about our thrilling once-in-a-lifetime experience.I stepped back on to the beach but the possibility of encountering the manatee once more motivated me to try again. I returned to the sea and swam out to where she had been. After about 5 minutes, I dove down six feet and saw her. We were face to face.For the next half-hour, we swam separated at times by only a foot of seawater. I reached out and touched the back of the ten-foot, thousand-pound, submerged mammal. It felt like the bottom of the sea. Layers of grit, algae, and microorganisms covered her thick skin. Barnacles, snails – all sorts of little creatures – were embedded in that live substrate. The manatee was accompanied by a school of small silver-and-yellow fish. Occasionally one would take a nip of sustenance from the living encrustation that covered her. When I lost site of her, I could locate the brilliant fish and follow them to their mammoth host. Twice I headed back to shore and twice she followed me. We spent about 25 minutes together. I always will remember the experience.The sea cow also carried three long and deep scars from encounters with boat propellers. Manatees are an endangered species. Docile and trusting, they have not fared well during the rapid encroachment of human civilization upon their ecosystem. Seeing a manatee in the wild today is very uncommon. I spoke with divers who in many years of pursuing the avocation had not spotted a manatee during a dive.I write about the natural world because it is the source of all art and aesthetic experience. Inspired by Mother Nature, her astounding creatures, and infinite universe, I move toward an ever greater appreciation of her all-enveloping transcendent beauty.*Image: USGS

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