Cayo Coasta State Park – February 19, 2013
I know I saw it just before sunset because I remember the sky. I remember those thin white clouds hanging in the west like a blank canvas. I remember their edges tinged pink. I remember thinking the sunset would be beautiful.
Then I saw the manatee.
I have good eyes. They pick up things far away, they find bits of the world out-of-place. They saw the manatee, only I didn’t know what it was then, I only knew there was something strange along the shore, something that didn’t belong.
Every moment I stared the details filled in. I started to paddle. Hard. I thought that maybe there was something I could do, maybe there was someway I could help, maybe I would be able to get there in time. But as I got closer, I knew.
All my hopes, all that small glimmer of doubt faded away and I knew what I was staring at. I knew that it wasn’t a tree trunk or a rock. It wasn’t some washed up piece of trash or a busted tire cast into the ocean.
It was a manatee flipped over on its back, its flippers curled underneath its face, its body sunk in the sand along the surf, moving with the waves, rocking from side to side.
I knew it was dead as soon as I saw it, as soon as I recognized what it was. There was no movement in it, no life, just the water pushing it around like a dead puppet, sliding its tail back and forth across the sand.
I thought of swimming in the sapphire pools at Three Sister’s and watching dozens of manatees rise and fall like smooth gray boulders. I thought of the moment when one came from behind me and leaned close, its shoulder pressed against mine, its tiny black eyes staring at me. I thought of the way one wrapped its giant leathery flippers around the boat and hung there as if he wanted a ride.
I thought of that piece of Eden and stared at the lump of grey washed ashore on a lonely beach.
The curious stare, gone. The playful nudges, gone. Nothing but a carcass in the waves, its round belly rising in a giant gray arc, tossed up on shore like a piece of trash.
The hint of white scars curled around its back and I tried to push it over. I crouched low and shoved with all my might, my legs pressing into the dirt, my body trembling and mad, my fingers pressed on its thick grey skin.
I wanted to see its back. I needed to see its back. I needed to see if it has been chopped and broken by a boat propeller. I wanted to be angry and mad at something, to rage at someone. But I couldn’t move it, not more than an inch before it sunk back down, me with it, furious at everything, at a world where this happens.
I knew I could not leave so I sat in the sand next to it and watched the sunset, watched a sky painted red, pink, and yellow on those thin white clouds, watched the waves crash into it and twist its tail sideways.
I couldn’t bury it or send it back to sea, but I could stand watch for a night, give it one mourner, one guard, one moment of peace before the vultures circle and land.
I can see it now, a shadow in the moonlight, moving with the waves, black and dead.
And I mourn.
Imagine a forest without birds or an ocean without fish, nothing reflects our preservation or destruction of wilderness like wildlife. There is no greater feeling of being in nature than seeing the wild creatures that call it home. The Florida Wildlife Federation works every day to make sure that we can still see panthers, manatees, bears, and other creatures across Florida. I encourage you to go to their website and learn how you can help make sure the next generation has a chance to do more than read about these creatures.