The Gray Blur of a Manatee

3/31/2018 Saturday

We get up to the alarm and wander to the hotel office where breakfast awaits us:   a pot of coffee; a stack of wrapped, generic granola bars; a tiny wrapped pastry; a Little Debbie stuffed, soft cookie; bananas and apples.  So excited.  We grab a little of this and that and head back to the room to put our swimsuits on. I pull my suit on, and on top of it, the same nylon skin I wore on our honeymoon in Bonaire, and on top of that a lightweight farmer john and on top of that a thicker core neoprene.  I put my phone in a plastic container the kids got one of us for Christmas, and along with it my credit card and room key.  We take our masks, fins and snorkels in hand, along with a towel…which turns out to be a stupid idea because it is impossible to keep a towel dry in an open kayak.

Captain Mike’s flotilla of boats to rent.

We find Captain Mike’s rather crowded for 7:45 in the morning, but maneuver ourselves right up to the counter only to learn they also want my license.  I run back to the room—which is quite fun with so many layers on—get my license and hand it over with my credit card.  I get the credit card back and put it with the phone and key; they keep my license.  We take a receipt to the dockhands, who help us into a tandem kayak.  The wind is already kicking up and the water already a bit choppy.  They give us directions to the springs and we’re off and paddling by 8:00.

Off on our manatee paddling adventure.

After only a few strokes, we come to find that everyone and their brother is not only on spring break but renting kayaks or paddle boards, or hiring motorized boats to take them to the Three Sister Springs. It’s a half hour paddle from our motel, past the giant Pete’s Pier marina and under a bridge, and it’s almost like being in a parade.   The river narrows after the bridge and when we come around the last corner we see five boats pulled off the side of the narrow river channel, with snorklers everywhere.  There’s barely enough room to move our paddles between the boats and snorkelers, most of whom are supported by foam noodles.   We find a rope to tie our kayak to on the shore, and per regulations, put out our dive flag in case it’s not obvious that we’re hanging out with the other mass of snorklers.

Mark–now appearing much shorter than previously–getting ready to go snorkeling.

We follow a half dozen barefoot fools against the current coming out of three Sister Springs where earlier in the morning there may have been a manatee but which had gone elsewhere due to the chaos.  The springs hold about 30 people, few of whom have fins and all of whom are kicking their little feetsies and churning up the water while being supported by their foam noodles.  It’s a pathetic scene and I can’t wait to get out of there.  We head back downstream to the crowd of people surrounding a small area buoyed off for the protection of the manatees.  In the murk we make out a mother and calf still sleeping in spite of the chaos around them. We get back into the kayak and paddle toward our motel, against the grain of people pouring into the Springs.  Most ignore us, same say hello.  One woman on a paddleboard suggests we feather our paddles to get more power. Bitch.

Between the bridge and Pete’s Pier, two boats have stopped in a wide area of the river and people on noodles are chasing the manatees around.  We pull our kayak to the shore, jump back into the water and kick ahead of the group in the direction the manatees are perhaps heading.   Mark makes contact with one, but all I see is something large and gray floating by and the mass of humans.  We kick back to the kayak and after I got back in, turn to see Mark is shivering badly as he tries to untie the knot around the dive float.  His hands are shaking and when he finally succeeds and gets into the kayak and I suggest a vigorous stroke to get ourselves warmed up.

Fortunately, paddling warms Mark up and instead of heading back to our room, we paddle around Buzzard Island where I suggestperhaps we can find a spot to sit in the shallows and wait for a manatee to approach us, rather than froth the water in search of one. We sit in chest high water for twenty minutes without contact, upon which time a boat arrives carrying a young couple and their two small boys who have the same plan. A small manatee surfaces near us, but again, the water is so murky we don’t see him underwater.  We call it quits when I determine I’m also getting cold, paddle around the buoys that surround Kings Spring, cross the river and back to Captain Mike’s.  After peeling down to my swimsuit and leaving my other layers in the sun, I rinse off in the shower until I’m warmed up.  Mark is right behind me and comments that he didn’t realize just how cold he’d gotten. It was the first time I’d seem him hypothermic.

Mark contemplating his next move (dinner and drinks).  Buzzard Island is in the background, with King Springs to the right.

We spend the afternoon in the sorta-sun/mostly clouds, awaiting the arrival of Mark’s college pal, Ken, who he exchanges fun, strange and delightfully inappropriate gifts with every Christmas in spite of Ken being Jewish.  Ken shows up in his Tesla and we wander to the Margarita Breeze.  I order the blackened salmon–which is quite tasty–along with some veggies and a salad.  A couple of beers take the chill off Ken’s editorial against guns and we enjoy a pleasant time in the open-air restaurant again.

Because the bar and restaurant are so noisy, we return to the room to watch the U of M men’s basketball team take on Loyola Chicago as part of the NCAA tournament.  Ken leaves at half time, having spent the last hour in a 1970s era side chair in the dim light of our small room.

Old college buds, Ken and Mark.

I run out to shoot photos of two lizard pals I’d befriended the day before, one of which had lost its tail.

Lizard life is tough. This is one of two lizards outside our room that had lost its tail.

Mark and I watch the rest of the game and go to bed happy that U of M beat Loyola Chicago 69 to 57.  I only feel sorry for the nun who’d prayed so hard for Loyola.

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