*real-life, never-before-seen photos are included in this story
*all underwater photography courtesy of the widely available GoPro Hero 3 camera, which I know is widely available because my nine year-old nephew and I received identical birthday presents last year…
*no manatees were harmed in any way by the researching or writing of this post
I considered calling this “Fur Eden” instead of “Fur Elise” (you know, like Beethoven), but that seemed TOO nerdy even for me. The thought is there, though, Eden, if you’re reading this. You suggested that I make it into something larger than an email and I cannot bring myself to disappoint.
For those of you that don’t know – and that’s basically everyone – I took my mom on a cruise in June. I’ve been scrimping and saving and meticulously counting my pennies for, like, two years, so don’t get on a high horse about how I spend all of this cash that I promise my wife and I do not rake in, no matter how cool we seem. It’s a big birthday year for my mom, and she’s a relatively low-key person who rarely asks for anything, and I’m rarely in a position to GIVE anything, so this seemed like the perfect compromise. My aunt went with us, and two of my cousins went, too, and it was FREAKING AMAZING. Literally. It was amazeballs. Mom and her sister did a tour of the top ten tourist attractions in Nassau. Turns out, that’s mainly rum distilleries, so they had an ADVENTURE getting back to the boat. I did a snorkeling excursion with my cousins.
Now, I know you’re wondering what the hell this has to do with manatees. Manatees are not generally part of the Bahamian snorkel experience. Just wait.
Here is the part where I should tell you that I have an intense and debilitating fear of open water. Not open OCEAN water, just open water, period. Like, if I can’t touch the bottom, I will hyperventilate in your custom, above ground swimming pool. I can swim, I swear to God, I can swim. I’m a champion swimmer (as my wife is laughing in the background and asking “by whose standards?”). Bae and I are big kayakers. But I DO NOT DANGLE. Obviously, this put a bit of a damper on my snorkeling experience because snorkeling is basically just dangling, all roped together like cattle (maybe that rope was just me hanging onto my cousin for dear life, but whatevs), listening to a sixteen year old “expert” who sounds like a faded recording of “No Woman, No Cry” tell you that bigger women float better than skinny, “pencil” women.
Anyway, halfway through this exclusion – an excursion we paid AMERICAN money for – My Cousin, whose name I will withhold for privacy reasons, not because she’s really Beyonce – looks over and goes, “Why is your head not in the water? Put your head into the water,” as if I am a child. At this crossroads, I begin to weigh my options, and then, quite literally, I become a child. I become a toddler, one who doesn’t want to take a nap and goes limp, like a cooked spaghetti noodle. Fast as fast can be, you’ll never catch me! No, no, no. Not gonna. Not doing it. My main goal is feverishly keep my head ABOVE the waterline and, therefore, save my life from the shit that lurks below, staring up at my meaty, dangling thighs.
My Cousin, though, she’s totally not having this meltdown, like, not even a little bit. She lives in Haiti – the COUNTRY of Haiti, where people run on broken glass in bare feet and fight Mother Nature for every scrap of sustenance imaginable. “Voss Porter,” she tells me, “You will PUT YOUR FUCKING HEAD IN THIS WATER OR SO HELP ME I WILL HOLD YOU DOWN.”
That terrified me. So…
You guessed it. Home girl tried to swim away.
Unfortunately, Ariel I am most assuredly not, and thirty seconds later, guess whose head was in the water?
And guess what else?! The ocean is LOVELY! And I was safe! There was literally NOTHING down there! Not Nemo, no Dory, not Mr. Ray! It was just anemones and seaweed and tiny fish that came nowhere near me, thank the Lord! The ocean was gorgeous. It was life-changing. I mean, I may have screamed “Mermaid down! I need the dinglehopper!” one too many times. Oh, and the strap of the life vest was so far up my who-ha I thought we had been dating for six months, but I was, physically, fine, and I came away thinking I was a legit SCUBA instructor. I’m Jacques Cousteau’s Lesbian Sidekick. Scratch that, I’m fucking Flounder.
Fast forward one month. Fresh off of my MasterDiver certification – the one that I earned by snorkeling in approximately eight feet of ocean, clutching another woman’s dive vest so hard my knuckles turned white, sputtering and slurping up water and trying to take pictures of myself looking like one aquatic Disney princess – my wife casually throws out that she would really maybe like to dive with a manatee. Manatees are slow-moving and vaguely spiritual, and wouldn’t that be cool? If we could do that?
I have, by cosmic twist, surrounded myself with women who love unconditionally and never ask for anything in return. My mother is just as happy with the gift bag her present comes in on Mother’s Day as she is with the Chico’s store card. I’m married to a woman who is overjoyed if I remember to bring home her beer from the grocery store. Clearly, if one or both of them want to swim with a manatee, We. Are. Swimming. With. The. Manatee.
Bae and I drive, like, eight hours. We rent an AirBnB, which is another, slightly more terrifying story. I have paid a man to take us out on a boat and find a manatee in Crystal River and then show me what to do with it. I put on sunblock, I bring my towel (because I have read the list of WHAT TO BRING on the charter website). I put on the goggles he gives me, acting like a damn goggle connoisseur. I take the noodle he hands me, acting like the curator of the soft, foam stringy-float-thing museum.
And then I look down.
And the water is black.
The water is not, by any stretch of the imagination, Bahamian clear. It’s, like, the goo that crusts over on the bottom of the witch’s cauldron, inky and gelatinous.
“It’s just the seaweed on the bottom,” Cap’n Fred/Frank (like I can remember HIS name in a moment of sheer terror).
But I can’t do it. I freeze. Bae, who is blind without her glasses, strapped into the goggles, is off and running, but I’m… Frozen. (and I can’t let this go, har har har)
That’s not entirely true. That’s my trying to NOT be as dramatic as what actually happened. What actually happened is I got in. I swam about six feet, something touched my foot, I started crying, and I got right back on that pontoon boat.
I looked out at my wife, who is so freaking excited, and I think “Voss, find your inner Cousin and get your ass back out there. There are manatees to catch on film.” I know, even in that moment, that no one who knows me will believe that I really did this unless there is photographic evidence.
Frank/Fred the Manatee Wrangler corals us again and finds another manatee in another tiny area. There are more boats here, more people in the water. On some level, the rational parts of my brain are thinking “If there are sharks here, there is less of a chance YOU’LL be eaten when there are forty other people splashing around.” Also, there were kids. Sharks love kids. And the water is clearer.
I take a deep breath.
I get into the water.
I look down.
And the panic sets in. My legs start shaking. My arms start shaking. I am in a brackish inlet with a wild animal and the Manatee Wrangler has just stated I was “probably” pretty safe because the only sharks that can make it this far up stream are Bull Sharks. EXCUSE ME, SIR, BUT ARE YOU NOT AWARE THE LEGEND OF JAWS IS BASED ON A BULL SHARK? HAVE YOU NOT SEEN SHARK WEEK, YOU UNCULTURED SWINE?
Bae puts her face in the water. There’s a manatee. The other people are loading back up. She is literally so moved by this, it’s beautiful. She looks up at me. She motions for me to put my face down in the water.
“It’s fine, it’s not that close. I don’t want you to miss it!” I’m thinking, I don’t want ME to miss it!
“Voss,” I say out loud, because after crying in front of a strange man and saying repeatedly I DON’T WANT TO DIE, I DON’T WANT TO DIE while dog-paddling back to the pontoon, I am long past being embarrassed around my Sea Cow brethren. “It’s fine. You’ve got this. The goggles magnify everything by, like, three.”
In goes my face. With my eyes closed. I sputter into the snorkel. I open my eyes.
AND THE FUCKING MANATEE IS SIX INCHES FROM ME AND GAINING GROUND and there is no way it can be THAT magnified by the flimsy glass in the flimsy goggles and this flimsy noodle is not going to save my ass! I choke. It looks at me, and I look at it, and I break every single one of the manatee rules from that stupid manatee rule billboard, of which there are many because, FYI, manatees are a federally protected species.
I kick my legs.
I inhale about six gallons of water because the top of the snorkel is now in my hand and I am using it to propel my fat ass backwards, back toward Fred/Frank and the salvation of the pontoon.
I am trying to subliminally tell this animal that weighs 600 hundred pounds that I do not want to hug and IT IS LITERALLY THE MOST HUGGABLE CREATURE ON THE PLANET and why am I doing this? Oh, it’s because there’s a wild ocean animal swimming underneath me, and I can feel it on my feet and I don’t want to because it’s creepy and that’s mean and-
Then I pee. I pee on a federally protected species.
I pee while hollering things like “No, God, not now! It’s not MY time! I can’t go out like this!”
“What idiots,” my wife had remarked the evening before, as we sat, the crest of the Floridian sunset, drinking beers on the dock of Pete’s Pier. “What idiots need all of these rules about manatees? Why would you ever harass a manatee? What kind of a jackass does that? What kind of a jackass would offend a manatee?”
On behalf of my bladder, Mister Manatee, I sincerely apologize.