Brian and I recently acquired stand up paddleboards and it has been our favorite thing to take them on a spin throughout the network of saltwater channels that snake through the grasses and reeds and eventually empty into the nearby Atlantic Ocean here on Little Talbot Island.
This is a small island and life here is intimately connected with the water. So there is constant water-based chatter about the storms predicted to blow in this afternoon, or the recent nor’easter that churned up the jellyfish, or the Portuguese man-o-war sighting. The ocean holds many stories. But in the saltwater marshes that we have been paddleboarding through lately, there is only one subject, one star: an elusive manatee.
Each time Brian and I drop our paddleboards into the water someone tells us of their recent manatee sighting.
When we were loading our paddleboards off of the car at a local outdoor outfitter the owner came out to tell us that just yesterday he’d seen the manatee from his kayak.
When we put our paddleboards in from the boat dock at our campsite the camp host, who was fishing from the shore, told us that just three nights ago she’d seen the manatee playing in a muddy inlet nearby.
Brian and I have become obsessed with finding this manatee. It is our personal mission. And although we have been discouraged (too early in the season, the water is too cold) we have also been encouraged (he’s definitely around, you’ve got a shot at seeing him).
We have varied our searches based on our flawed theories of when the manatee will be out and swimming. For instance, we agree that the middle of the day, when the sun is high and hot, is the least likely time to spot him. So we go looking in the morning, when the humidity is a cool weight and the air is thick with dew. We go in the evening when the sky is pastel cream and the insects flit above the water. We go, but we have yet to see that manatee.
Sunrise over the saltwater marshes.
Sunset while we search for the manatee.
We see royal terns that squawk and congregate in a group like rowdy teenagers. We see candy red cardinals and colorful painted buntings. We see so many mosquitos. We see beetles the size of a man’s hand.
We learn things too. “Don’t jump off your board,” an old woman calls to us from the shore when we paddle past her through a skinny inlet of muddy water. “We’ve got Florida quicksand in these parts. If you jump into it, it can suck you straight under. Stepping is fine, but don’t jump.” This is in direct conflict with my life mantra, but because of said jellyfish, I have no immediate plans of leaving the vicinity of my board. “Thank you,” we yell at her, and paddle on.
I find when I am looking for the manatee I am so focused on scanning the waters with a search dog intensity that I see things that I would have otherwise missed. The regal white heron perched, hidden mostly, by the long grasses along the shore. The striped bass that swim just below the surface of the brown water, the cannonball jellyfish that float by, the jumping fish that fly out of the water (what for?) and then flop back down again.
Because of the mistrust I have in my own balance I carry with me only the things that cannot be destroyed by water: My water bottle, some sunscreen. I have no phone, no camera. It has become a healing sort of meditation, this search for the manatee, because when I look for it I am thinking of nothing else, of nowhere else.
When I’m moving through the water it is easy to believe that I am surrounded in stillness, like there is nothing there at all. But when I pull my paddle up and stand there on my board, and I look out like Captain Cook searching for that spot of the manatee in the distance, I am overcome by the pulse and flurry of life all around me. No, I have not yet seen that manatee. But what I have seen is a miracle.