Visiting Manatees and Mermaids

Article excerpt

I awakened feeling I was in a strange place. The room was dark, darker than rooms ever are. Oh. I was in a small motel room. The curtains block out sunshine so weary travelers can sleep. I lay there listening to the slow, regular breathing of my daughter in the next bed. She was still deep in sleep. I listened for the softer breathing of my three granddaughters. I was wide awake, ready to get up. What time was it? I couldn't read my watch in the darkness. No one stirred. I turned over and pulled the blanket over my head and tried to go back to sleep. We were on a break from a long, cold winter in northern Virginia. If April is the cruelest month, February is the longest. In the midst of a snowstorm my daughter said, "Why don't we take the kids and go to Florida for 10 days?" Just the thought of that cheered us. My granddaughter Zoe had wanted to see the manatees that she had been learning about in school. We decided to go visit them. A perfectly sensible reason to go to Florida in February. Although we would spend over half our time driving, the thought of wearing shorts and sunscreen was irresistible. I opened my eyes again and looked around. Everybody still asleep. Nobody stirring. Tiny rays of sun were slipping past the dark curtain, suggesting it must be noon, at least. How could they sleep so long? I turned over and pretended to be asleep. When we reached Homosassa Springs on the Gulf Coast we took a boat to the island pool where the manatees congregate. Injured manatees - frequently hurt by motorboat propellers while they graze in shallow water - are brought here and nursed back to health. They settle in and stay year round. Usually, manatees move into freshwater rivers and pools during winter and return to the ocean in the spring. This ability to change from fresh water to salt water and back is a remarkable adaptation. None of us had ever seen a real manatee. Pictures of the "sea cow" show massive, round creatures, much like a swimming meatloaf. The ancient who confused manatees with mermaids surely had a vivid imagination. While waiting for the gamekeeper to come feed them, we saw our first manatee. Gliding gracefully through the water with imperceptible movement, it swam right to the bank where Zoe was standing. In her eagerness to see, she crowded as close as possible to the bank. …