Manatee Majesty by Brandi Shapland
December in Northern Wisconsin snuck up on me. Its chill slithered into my coats, hats, and mittens, made a home coiled around my heart. It prevented me from feeling warm or seeing the sun for more than a few precious moments, and it tended the aches and tears that had stalked me ever since I had broken up with my long-term boyfriend three months before. I had felt alone since that day. The cold was my only companion to the pain, but I was tired of its clutch.
I spent an hour huddled over my laptop, browsing tourist destinations, and looking for somewhere I could swim and feel the heat of the sun on my face. I settled on Crystal River, Florida, home to numerous warm freshwater springs that made it the perfect sanctuary for manatees in the winter. I booked a plane ticket to Tampa, Florida, and a bus ticket from there an hour north to Crystal River. I spent a couple minutes on Couchsurfing, a worldwide website filled with locals offering their couches and spare rooms to travelers on a budget. Within seconds I settled on Jerrilyn, a 55-year old single woman with excellent reviews and a darling photo.
My parents were less than pleased when I told them I was traveling by myself to a city I had never been to and that I would be staying with a woman I had never met. My parents warned me of the dangers of traveling alone as a woman. My mom recounted a devastating story of a couple who stayed in an Airbnb in Costa Rica and died from carbon monoxide poisoning. They told me these things the way only parents can, with the fluttering air of worry and logic that seemed so obvious to them. I was set on spending a week in the sun with the manatees to escape the cold and pain, and there was nothing they could say to persuade me any differently. They had been listening to me cry over the phone for months and knew that I needed something that I wasn’t getting from school or from them. They reluctantly swallowed their worry and told me they were proud I was doing something for myself.
I drove to my parents’ house in Omaha, Nebraska, after finishing my last final of the semester. The nine-hour car ride was a dreary smudge and I arrived exhausted. I had only eight hours to pack my bags and hangout with my parents before they had to drive me to the airport. I took only a small suitcase with me, stuffed with shorts, t-shirts, a rain jacket, and my favorite pair of jeans. I also tossed in my snorkel, goggles, and the Tom Robbins classic Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
At promptly 4:30 a.m. we arrived at the airport and said goodbye with shaky voices and smiles. I had a newly purchased carbon monoxide detector in my suitcase and a promise to my dad that I would buy pepper spray once I got to Florida.
My plane landed in Tampa without any mishaps, and I took a Greyhound bus to Crystal River. The bus was loud and uncomfortable, and my tired eyes found little solace as it bumped its way past vast pine and palm forests. I had asked Jerrilyn to pick me up at 9:30 p.m. at the old mall where the bus dropped me off. The mall building was a shell of a once-thriving consumer stop, and it leered at me as I shuffled through it with my suitcase to the only open place: a farm and fleet store brimming with people in camouflage with tobacco-stained lips. I felt like day-old oatmeal in a donut shop, and I could feel these people’s eyes on me as I rolled my flaming red suitcase down aisles sporting tackle gear and Muck boots. Their eyes were not unkind, but they knew I was out of place.
I remembered my promise to my dad, and I asked an older clerk if the store sold pepper spray. His wrinkled eyes narrowed, and he shook his head. I walked around, dragging my feet and looking for some type of aerosol can that would suffice. I found myself in a row dedicated to pesticides. It was a terrific array of all the sprays, washes, traps, and sticky pads I could have ever dreamed of.
Moral reasoning and queasy stomach pushed aside, I spent several slow minutes debating whether gnat repellent was sufficient or if I should spend an extra two dollars and get WaspBeGone (“can spray up to 4 feet and is tough on hornets too!”). My mind was reeling from the possibilities of an attacker being confused but not deterred if I were to spray them with insect repellent. I took the lids off the brightly colored canisters and sprayed a little of each on my fingertips to see if I would feel any pain. I frowned at my fingers, which seemed entirely unaware that the liquid coating them was supposed to kill gnats and wasps (and hornets too!). It occurred my tired mind that I would spray it at someone's eyes, which are more sensitive than fingertips, and I should test the sprays on a more sensitive area of my body. I lifted my glistening fingers to my mouth to see if my tongue could take the punch, and I felt a tap on my shoulder. The old clerk was watching me with wide eyes and an open mouth. He asked me if I needed any help. He didn’t specify whether he meant physically or mentally, so I said no and took both cans with me to the front of the store. I thought that I might be hungry in the morning, so I grabbed a box of oatmeal from an end cap on the way.
I paid for my goods and stepped into the night to wait for Jerrilyn. The black sky was illuminated by the store sign, bright and harsh, and bats were filling the space with their squeaks and fluttering wings. They were agile and quick, and my weary eyes watched them in wonder as a warm breeze stroked my cheek. I wasn’t concerned about what people thought of me, staring at those glorious bats, holding two canisters of pesticides and a box of oatmeal to my chest, tears streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t know when the tears started. I was not sure if it was because I was terrified of the possibility of having to use my new defense mechanisms or if it was because I had never felt as alone as I did then. I was in a town I had picked purely because of the warm weather and possibility of seeing the manatees, and I was surrounded by people who had never known me nor would ever care to know me.
I stood outside that store regretting my decision of ever going to Florida and wondering if I should buy a can of spider killer too (maybe it’s stronger than wasp and gnat killers?) until Jerrilyn pulled up in a white Nissan crossover. The car was luxurious, clean, and sparkling, and Jerrilyn stepped out of it looking like a queen in an elegant black sweater, bedazzled jeans, and knee-high black boots decorated in silver chains. I brushed my hand across my eyes and shoved the pesticides and oatmeal into my purse before she could see the evidence of my unease. She looked happy to see me and even hugged me without hesitation as my shoulders relaxed at her gentle and reassuring touch. We put my suitcase in her trunk, and I told her about my travels to get to Crystal River. She was surprised that my bus had dropped me off at that particular store, and as her eyes fell on a couple exiting the store with a cart full of deer feed, said, “all the rednecks shop here.”
Jerrilyn was anything but what she would classify as a redneck. She was radiant and sophisticated, with rectangular glasses perched on her nose and a small smile that never seemed to go away, always wanting to join in on our conversation. We talked lightly about ourselves as she drove us to her little bungalow on a canal that fed into Crystal River, the namesake of her town. I learned that she owned a hearing aid business (a popular destination for Florida’s aging residents) and had been living in Crystal River for over 20 years. Without needing to be asked, she listed off the best restaurants, places to see the manatees, and even offered to let me borrow her car for a day so I could go to more places. I was astonished at her generosity and sat in an exhausted state of awe for the remainder of the short drive as she told me about her friends who wanted to take us on a boat ride the next day so I could see the manatees.
When we got to her house, she showed me the guest room that would be mine. I placed the carbon monoxide detector on the nightstand and felt a pang of loneliness before I fell asleep between seashell sheets in nothing but my polka-dot underwear.
I woke up the next morning feeling well-rested, and I ate my oatmeal in Jerrilyn’s cozy living room overlooking the dark and narrow canal. She sat with me, drinking her Keurig coffee, and we watched the seagulls and egrets flying over the shore stations lining the decaying cement walls of the canal. She told me there was an enormous alligator who would pop his head up right next to her dock whenever it rained. The woman across the canal liked to feed him biscuits and gravy whenever she saw him, and he tended to linger in the area, waiting for the next savory taste.
We spent that Sunday on her friends’ fishing boat, exploring the intricacies of their canal and the Crystal River. I was wearing a pair of jean shorts, a yellow t-shirt, and sandals, but the Floridians were layered in sweatshirts, long socks, and pants in the face of the 65-degree weather, and they complained endlessly in shivering tones about how they couldn’t wait for summer. I sat on the bow and breathed in the warm, clean air, chasing the Northern Wisconsin freeze out of my lungs.
My companions laughed easily and asked the typical questions about my life, quickly learning about my family, school, and life goals. They were amazed that my parents had let me go on such a big trip all by myself. I shrugged and smiled to hide the fear and pain that had choked me the night before.
I saw my first manatee that day. It was only a glimpse, merely a flash of something large and grey swimming at an astonishing speed beneath the boat as we ate our lunch. I set my sandwich onto its wrinkled wrapper as my eyes devoured the water, getting lost in the clear blue spring. My breath slowed and my movements became liquid as if my body didn’t want to disturb the gently kneading surface of the river and turn the manatees away. While I gazed and hoped for another one to grace my path, Jerrilyn told me the story of the manatees.
She said the springs around Crystal River kept the water at a steady 72 degrees year-round, and the manatees come in the winter to evade the cold waters of the Gulf of Mexico. They come in pairs, in droves, and alone. They come painted in white, sticky barnacles that fall off after a few days in the fresh spring. They come to rest, to scratch their bellies on rocks, and to feast on sea grass. All along Jerrilyn’s canal were signs warning boat drivers to slow down, and countless kayaking and snorkeling groups could be seen on manatee-crazed adventures. The waterways of Crystal River are manatee sanctuaries. I felt the safety of that little haven and knew I had made the right choice in going to Crystal River. I felt that I could find refuge with the manatees.
Jerrilyn had an old, bleached orange kayak that weighed almost as much as a newborn manatee. We dragged and yanked the kayak onto the top of her car one morning, and she drove me to a tiny beach near the Crystal River springs we had boated by a few days before. We hauled the wretched kayak beneath a palm tree that waved with us as we said goodbye for the day. I shoved the kayak onto the water and sat with my water bottle and snacks at my feet and my life jacket behind me. I felt calm, surrounded by the glittering water and sensing the sun above me. It was the most alone I had been since Jerrilyn picked me up my first night in Florida. The reason I had gone was to be alone, and however daunting it seemed, it was what I needed.
I spent the morning paddling near the pristine springs. The edges of the water were lined with large pale rocks and spilling over with thick vegetation. I saw flowers dipped in violet and sprinkled with yellow, thick vines weaving nests and nets in the trees above me, and an endless stream of birds teasing the clouds out of the sky. The bottom of the water was smooth and barren of sea grass. It was broken only by the immense forms of manatees sleeping with their wrinkled and whiskered faces smooshed into soft white sand. They were gigantic, but not fat. I had learned that they have a very low body mass index, and the reason they come to the steady heat of the springs is because they aren’t very good at regulating their body temperature.
I kept my distance from the tired giants, making sure not to stay right above them. They breathe every 15 to 20 minutes while they are asleep, but they never wake up to do so. Instead their rib cages expand automatically to make them gently float to the surface. When their noses sense air instead of water, they exhale and inhale without ever waking, and their ribs contract again, making them sink back to their resting place. An immense feeling of serenity and bliss filled me as I watched them sleeping so peacefully.
After an hour of paddling around their breaching noses, I decided it was time to see them in their domain. I tied the kayak to a tree and slid gingerly into the water. It was colder than I was expecting, and it chilled me as it snuck through the thick layer of the wetsuit Jerrilyn had let me borrow. I put on my goggles and snorkel and pushed the air out of my lungs until I sank under the water. For a few seconds I stayed there and let my eyes adjust to the dimmer light of the water. Little fish came to investigate me but quickly lost interest when they realized that wetsuits are not edible. I began to swim, and I let my snorkel break the surface so I could breathe. I came within a few feet of a mother and her calf nuzzled together. The surface and sun reflected on their broad grey backs in a dazzling display.
The mother was awake and looking at me with small, dark eyes. I was close enough that I could reach out and brush my hand against her fuzzy forehead if I desired, but I didn’t want to invade her space. I floated near her and never lost contact with those soulful eyes. This manatee majesty looked at me with a calm and quiet demeanor. She did not shy away from my tireless gaze, and I felt a sense of acceptance as her eyes washed over me.
The manatees all around me were rising and sinking. The mother began to float slowly to the surface. I broke through the water with her and I was surrounded by round, bristled noses. A chorus of snorts and grumbles came rolling and vibrating out before the noses disappeared again. I could not help laughing at those absurd and fantastic noises filling my ears. The sun warmed my wet, smiling face, and I floated on my back so it could reach every part of me. I could feel and hear the manatees moving all around me through subtle changes in the water. I felt the rhythm of their breathing and with every breath from one of the steady and tranquil manatees, and I breathed too.