Searching For the Manatee

by Kim on June 8, 2014 · 22 comments

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.



{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Beverly Smith June 8, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Thanks for this lovely post! A beautiful read to wind down the day.


Kim June 9, 2014 at 9:37 am

Thanks Beverly. I’m glad you enjoyed it.


Patti June 8, 2014 at 6:28 pm

Florida quick sand?! Who knew? The sunrise/sunset photos are lovely. Is it hard to stand/balance on the boards?
Patti recently posted..Alfred, An Enslaved Man ~


Kim June 9, 2014 at 9:37 am

I sure didn’t know. I’m glad I didn’t jump off my board before I learned about it!

And, no, it is easy to balance on the boards. Ours are quite big and sturdy so it’s pretty easy. I have terrible balance.


Marisa R June 8, 2014 at 8:56 pm

I’ve been looking for pennies instead of manatees, but I think we’re coming to the same conclusions — it’s not so much about finding what we’re looking for, but seeing all the things we would have missed had we not started searching 🙂


Kim June 9, 2014 at 9:38 am

Yes, yes, yes.


Renee June 9, 2014 at 8:48 am

It was so great to meet you and Brian in Apopka on Saturday! I loved your enthusiasm and really enjoyed your talk! I learned a lot about hiking and various very important pieces of equipment, clothing, etc. Never knew that Deet eats plastic, and who knew hiking poles were such lifesavers? Sorry our Florida weather was so, so brutally hot & humid that day, but it appears that you have found some time to enjoy the water. Hope you get to see a manatee!


Kim June 9, 2014 at 9:39 am

Renee, it was wonderful to meet you too and I’m sorry we didn’t have more time to chat!!! MAN, was it hot 😉 I am writing this to you from Ohio now if you can believe it. We drove a few hours after we left that presentation and the rest of the way yesterday… Florida is not close to Ohio!


Candace June 9, 2014 at 9:03 am

Kim, I’m tearing up right now – this is beautiful. I can’t remember if we’ve talked about The Snow Leopard (by Peter Matthiessen) before? Your story reminded me so much of that book….about the elusiveness of what you’re searching for, but how the true point of it all might actually be the search itself. Thanks so much for sharing this. XO
Candace recently posted..One last look at Salt Spring Island.


Kim June 9, 2014 at 9:40 am

Candace, we have. I read it on your recommendation and I loved it. So beautiful.


Carmel June 10, 2014 at 6:25 am

Which will they find first…the manatee or Sasquatch?? I’m so jealous of your paddleboards. I really want to try it. Please don’t get sucked down by quicksand.
Carmel recently posted..THE CHILLI CRAB INCIDENT


Kim June 11, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Haha, we have found neither but I’ll place my bets on the manatee.


Sarah Somewhere June 10, 2014 at 8:49 am

Beautiful! Being out on the water, nature watching. Can’t think of a better meditation myself! I have always wanted to try SUP, Is it more difficult than it looks?
Sarah Somewhere recently posted..The big yellow car of dreams


Kim June 11, 2014 at 12:53 pm

It isn’t too difficult. There’s a few wobbly moments at the beginning when you’re trying to find your balance but after that it’s easy.


Don June 10, 2014 at 10:18 am

Fun! We expect a full report when the discovery is made. Underwater quick sand in Florida? Who knew?

I’ve read your book recently and have been exploring your site as well. Love it! I have one burning question though? In one of your post you stated that you had cut down on your soccer to save for your coming world trip. So, your love for soccer + living in Portland = Timbers fan??? If this is true we might have a problem. I’m from north of the Columbia which makes me a Sounder fan! If this is so then we have to hate each other. :)))) Just joking, of course.

So when is the next book coming out? I’m so inspired by your story. I have to stop dreaming and take action. Thanks for being proof that dreams can come true if you work for it.


Kim June 11, 2014 at 12:55 pm

IT’S TRUE. Timbers fan all the way!!!! I SO miss playing soccer and attending Timbers games. I always do love to watch them crush the Sounders 😉

The next book… not for awhile! I’ve got to find time to write the thing first. I’ve started but definitely nowhere near completion. But it is at the top of my to-do/wish list.


Tracey June 11, 2014 at 9:52 am

Where oh where can he be? I hope you find him but not too soon. Keep enjoying your distracted, unplugged time. It does creativity and the soul a lot of good.
Tracey recently posted..The Worst Feeling Because of a Language Barrier


Kim June 11, 2014 at 12:56 pm

It really, really does. I’ve been so busy and stressed out lately and I’ve had to remind myself that it not only OK but also beneficial to PLAY.


Ashlie June 11, 2014 at 2:23 pm

I find it amazing and a little scary to have a ‘wake up’ adventure like this that puts into perspective how often I am asleep to life around me. Sounds like the search might be the most satisfying part but I hope you find it anyway! 🙂
Ashlie recently posted..The Challenge Is On


Kim June 12, 2014 at 5:46 am

Yes, it is pretty amazing how often we are asleep– most of the time. I suppose it is our life’s work to stay awake.


Karyn @ Not Done Travelling June 11, 2014 at 11:17 pm

Until you said you weren’t taking your camera with you, I had been about to say: Wouldn’t it be trippy if, after you’ve moved on to the next area, you look through your photos and see a manatee in the background. 😀

It’s kind of cool that you are going out without your camera though. I don’t know about you but sometimes I’m like, “I have to take a photo of that! I need footage of this for the blog!” And I get so caught up in capturing the moment that I forget that I AM the moment.
Karyn @ Not Done Travelling recently posted..Follow Me On Social Media!


Kim June 12, 2014 at 5:47 am

That totally WOULD be trippy.

Well, we have moved on and I never did see that manatee. But I guess it is true that the joy was in the searching.

You comment that you ARE the moment reminds me of something I read lately, I think it was an inscription in a book: “this very moment is the occasion.”


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