Occasionally we have an idea about how to spend a day that will be memorable, but often the best laid plans are subject to change, according to the weather or unforeseen circumstances. Today was no different. The sun was up, but clouds gathered. One of two kayaks, offered as a loan by a neighbor, turned out to have a major crack in its bow—a small detail my youngest son picked up on as he started loading them an hour behind schedule. The deep heat of a Floridian day promised to arrive, whether we were out on the water or not. Ocean breezes and currents were forecast to increase in strength after mid-day. Thanks to a mom determined to help my son and I have a few hours of recreation time, she dutifully launched a Google search for the nearest kayak rental shop. There were several in the area.
Determined not to let the day and opportunity pass, Daniel, the youngest of four siblings, who would soon head off to graduate school, loaded the one good boat with a paddle and life jacket into the back of the Ford Explorer. He adeptly tied down the lift-gate, checked to make sure we had water bottles and began driving us north on the A1A away from Satellite Beach, passing Patrick Air Force Base on the left and beaches of the Atlantic on the right. We were heading for a destination several miles north. Not long into the drive, we passed a building with a new sign: Ocean Sports World. He abruptly turned around and headed back to the small shop, determined to get a price-comparison for rental services. (Comparison and bargain shopping is a trait all of my four children come by honestly…..they can’t help themselves because they were raised by a mother and grandmother who still don’t know any other way to shop for products and services!) I was proud of his initiative, since it ended up saving us more than a few dollars to rent the one additional boat we’d need for the next few hours. (To his credit, he even waited patiently for me to try on a sun dress that caught my eye hanging on one of the store’s racks….and even ended up buying one for his girlfriend’s birthday. Good son!)
Unloading the kayaks down the wooden-plank descending into the water, white algae covered rocks beneath our footing required careful attention to secure our right-of-passage into a later than planned morning. Herron and egrets, standing like statues in back yards overlooking the Banana River, seemed unimpressed with our accomplishment, as we pointed the bow of our boats into calm currents, coaxed by gentle breezes, flowing north. Private boats docked on private landings greeted us from their moorings. Pelicans poised on ropes draped between dock pillions seemed to watch us with amusement as we approached, confidently holding their positions until my son decided gliding under one of the higher docks would be fun.
Markers further out in the river denoted deeper waters where large boats might gain passage in lower tides. In the mean-time, they served as lookout posts for sea-birds, large and small, who seemed content simply to survey their domains. Clusters of Mangrove trees could be seen in the distance, appearing closer than our steady paddling advanced us. Billowing clouds, muted by a light gray veil, hinted at gathering humidity forecast to transform into rain-laden clouds, later in the afternoon.
Our host had mentioned rock shoals where dolphin might be seen playing, and a protected cove where manatee had been known to “hang out”. We passed thoughtfully landscaped back yards of stucco-sided homes with inter-locking tiled roofs, screened in pools, hammocks suspended between palm trees, outdoor grills waiting to host guests on cabana- covered docks. My son and I marveled at the well thought out shelters for boats moored in backyards whose playground was the river itself with the peninsula of Merritt Island serving as a parallel shoreline in the distance. I thought aloud how fortunate the people were who had the privilege of enjoying them.
Arriving at the cove, my son and I directed our sterns to calmer water. Only a little way into the narrower channel-like passage, dogs emerged from behind fences to bark at us and run back and forth along the water’s edge in their backyards defined by stone and cement-reinforced sea-walls. As the waters became shallower, murky brown swirls and clusters of bubbles could be seen lazily disturbing the surface of the pool nestled at the end of the inlet. Posted on trees and fences along the way were signs cautioning motor boats to watch for the manatee and not cause injury to their grey-brown camouflaged bodies, milling silently below the surface.
Aware of their presence, when the first one surfaced and blew water from its nostrils, two tightly closed eyes could be seen blinking, ever so slightly, before reclosing and sinking back into its miry covering. At the end where a large tree’s canopy reached out as an arm to shadow a bank nearby, one large flat tail fin arced and fell while the rotund body of another rolled gracefully past its companion’s before disappearing again.
Daniel’s startled voice turned my attention to a very large manatee dotted with white barnacles making its way up to his kayak. Another, almost imperceptibly, showed itself next to my kayak and I reached down to place the palm of my hand gently on the dark green algae cloaking its back. Momentarily it stopped, gracefully rolled over, lifting a fin towards me, and paused, belly up, waiting to be stroked like a beloved family pet. Daniel too was marveling at another manatee seeking to get closer to him. I noticed the one by my side had several white scars in its hide—-evidence of injuries caused by motor boat propellers. The next thing I felt was a gentle rocking as the large manatee cow’s flipper embraced the stern of the boat and gently rocked me, as if responding with an appreciative hug.
Suddenly I thought of the dull, lusterless shell I’d picked up on the beach only the day before. I wondered how anyone could hurt such a benevolent, though unsightly, creature as this manatee. Maybe I thought, there was hope for the creature that had once inhabited the hardened shell I’d thought about discarding…..but had held onto for at least one more day. Why I thought of the two in tandem breaths, I can only guess. I only know I could have milled about among the manatee all day and gone home satisfied.
But then, there were the strengthening winds and choppy waters that promised to make paddling back to the start point more challenging. My dutiful son reminded me it would take more time to go back than it had to head out. As we entered the more turbulent waters of the Banana River, there was a playful dolphin flashing its bottle-nose and arched body, as if to say: “What a glorious day! “ The briny water evaporating from my skin, leaving a fine residue of salt behind, made me think of tears and the salt that remains when they are dried from our eyes. How fresh water rinsed over our skin and face, leaves us refreshed; and how the ocean has life of its own that sometimes cries but has the capacity to rejoice, as well.
On the drive home, the hum and drone of cargo planes flying out over the ocean, before touching down at the air force base, only to lift off again in repetitive training circuits, and the nightly test of sirens preparing to warn residents of impending danger, caused me to consider how any routine can dull our appreciation of gifts close at hand. People and relationships, or natural resources —-they all team with evident and hidden treasures, whose presence we need to appreciate and regard with respect—– gifts—like the privilege of milling among the Manatee.