There are certain people who are absolutely fanatical when it comes to their fascinations with dolphins. I call these special treats, Porpoise People. And trust me, these unique individuals are by no means exclusive to beach communities. I can’t tell you how many times I have been driving through some little poedunk mountain town, East or West, and marveled at some maniac’s yard centered around a giant porpoise fountain. Inevitably, they also have a mailbox fashioned into a life size replica of a dolphin, and guaranteed, if you enter their house you’ll find china dolphins prominently placed, collector dolphin plates affixed to the wall, and quite possibly some ridiculously large and expensive statue made out of metal or crystal that the dog is completely afraid of.
What is up with this obsession?
Just the other day I was out paddling my sea kayak off the coast of Honeymoon Island, and a number of them surrounded me while hunting for food. The way they wrangle fish is so dramatic and fun to watch that one can’t help but feel a little jealous. It would be like getting up from the dinner table and doing a triple back flip followed by a few smacks of your ass on the table just for good measure.
I have to admit there is something captivating about these creatures. Dolphin’s actions wreak of intelligence, their physical abilities are astounding, and they seem so damn happy and carefree one would think they had the option to be human but decided, ‘Nah, I’m cool here, thanks.”
So, maybe I am a little understanding of Porpoise People. At least they don’t surround themselves with idols they eat like those crazy Pig People…
It is amusing how we humans tend to diminish the intensity of an animal’s true power in order to feel we are at one with them. Snuggly little stuffed bears, ball bouncing killer whales, and the basis for much of what is Disney attempt to break down the barriers between hand and claw. Aren’t they cute? But it is only as real as the choice between you, me, or them. It is survival, plain and simple. The only caveat being we seem to have the upper hand. It is up to us to decide what we want to live, and what we want to die.
For the time being, we have decided to allow enough room for 3,000 or so Florida manatees to navigate boat propellers, pollution, and encroachment to their habitat. Even when they do find a brief respite, they are assaulted by the very humans that have been generous enough to give them some room to breathe. Imagine snorkel-breathing animal enthusiasts hell-bent upon stroking the backs of innocent manatees no matter the cost. I tell you all of this only because of guilt. I recently became one of those humans who was directly responsible for infringing upon the manatees’ way of life.
On a recent sea kayaking trip out to Egmont Key, I realized through simple observation that quite a few manatees find their way up the waterways behind the island of Fort de Soto. I followed a few as they moved to deeper water with the outgoing tide, each of them displaying propeller scars on their backs as a right of passage. I tried to keep some distance, but they would often approach my sea kayak curious to see if I was something more. I tried to shoot video footage of these docile creatures, but they often surfaced and submerged before I could get anything worthwhile.
I decided to return the following weekend to see if I could capture any more video for the archives.
You Will Not Believe What Happened To Me
Almost immediately upon arriving to Fort de Soto the sky unleashed. The normally placid surface of the Gulf of Mexico turned angry and the palm trees braced against the wind. The rain beat down upon the hoods of countless cars making their way across the bridge to the dry, air conditioned safety of their Tampa Bay homes. I sat and waited. I was happy to see the earth wash itself clean of people even if for a little while.
Soon the sky cleared, and I slowly unpacked my gear and prepared for a paddle out into the Gulf. The sun beat down, and the water was slick and steamy. No one was around except for an apathetic raccoon snacking on mollusks alongside the river bank. All was quiet except for the occasional breach of air given off by distant manatees.
I saw several manatees surface a few yards away from me and then quickly disappear. I was floating quietly in the shallows when a baby appeared under the boat. I fumbled for the camera, but it was gone before I was ready. The water was murky from the rain, so I could not anticipate where they would surface next. I decided to take a less proactive approach and fished for a while in hopes they would we find me. After a while I grew tired of the attentive gnats and the disregarding fish. I decided to call it a day.
I was paddling back to my car when a rather large manatee surfaced to my left. Without thought I instantly reached my left paddle blade into the water and placed a hard brace to stop myself. I thought, maybe I could get some video footage after all? Instead, this motion immediately set off a chain of events that I am still amazed by. The manatee abruptly arced its entire body through the water kicking up a sizeable wake. It began to buck wildly, thrusting its tail out of the water as it moved quickly towards me.
Have you ever been in a situation where you curiously marveled in fear at the brute force of an animal? As the manatee’s tail came closer and closer to me I wondered if it would knock me unconscious. I did the only thing that I could do which was paddle. I began stroking like I was poised above the tallest waterfall, for that is exactly what it looked like. The water was frothed and white like a river rapid, and just as I began to pick up momentum my entire body and kayak were lifted from the water.
My sea kayak surprisingly came down right side up; although, it was filled halfway with water. I was totally drenched but naturally ecstatic to see everything was okay. I could not believe what had happened. Weren’t manatees supposed to be gentle creatures?
Because the water was clouded by the rain, I will never know exactly what happened. However, I am fairly positive that I disturbed a pair of adult manatees that were safeguarding an infant. The baby would explain the defensive behavior, and the incredible amount of agitation in the water would point to more than one manatee. Even in the moment of action, I am quite sure I felt at least two bodies push underneath me. The tide was going out, and I must have cornered them in a fairly confining space. My only other explanation is that dolphins somehow got mixed up in the melee.
I am humbled by the parents’ protective display. Manatees do not have fangs or claws, but they do have the will to survive and take care of their own. You or me would have done the same if a threatening stranger had come into our house. Next time, I will remember my place.
If you can shed any more light on what exactly happened please feel free to leave a comment.
That is what the guy who worked at the kayak rental shop told me when I asked about sea kayaking to Egmont Key State Park. Why, I asked?
“Full moon, out-going tide; it’s like Niagra Falls out there right now,” he said.
Well, I certainly do not want to get swept out to sea, I replied.
“I’ve been out there when the buoys were almost laid down flat from the current,” stated one of the other kayak rental attendants. “I’d suggest you go to the island in a motorboat before you attempt to paddle out there. At least wait until there is an incoming tide,” he added.
It was at this point that I began to actually question whether I should paddle out to Egmont Key. It could indeed be risky. I’d lived in the mountains a long time – maybe I was underestimating the swiftness and power of ocean currents? I had heard about the beauty and history of Egmont Key, but I had also heard that the paddle across the deep water shipping channel was only for experienced kayakers.
“Try out the kayak course behind the island,” suggested the man behind the counter.
I thanked the guys at the shop and headed back to my car. I looked out towards the Gulf of Mexico and thought, are these guys messing with me? I could see the island just 1-mile offshore. Surely it could not be that difficult?
But a voice inside of me said, perhaps you should be prudent. I continued to justify that rationale by thinking, I haven’t paddled the backside of the island yet…and I don’t want to flip out there and end up as shark bait. It was then that I decided to err on the side of caution and put-in on the established kayak course. I would tackle Egmont Key another day.
I put my Perception Carolina Kayak in the water, threw in a cooler and a fishing rod, and stuck off north towards Mullet Key and the outlet to the Gulf between Fort de Soto and Summer Resort Key.
I rode the current out and spent some leisurely time casting my rod towards the oyster banks and the mangrove roots in hopes of catching a bass or snook. At one point, I was startled by a large shape moving under the water towards me, but relaxed when I realized that it was just a manatee. I caught sight of some others and enjoyed following their sea shadows and intermittent surfacing until I lost them at the northern point of the island.
I was still bothered by the fact that I had originally planned to paddle out to Egmont but relented at the last minute. I chewed on this as I pulled over to take a swim on the front side of Fort de Soto. The water was clear and blue and stretched wide over an unending bank of shallow white sand. The water was refreshing; but I was not satisfied.
Eventually I found myself donning a spray skirt and lifejacket. I’ll just paddle a ways down the front side of the island and see how I feel, I decided. I cruised offshore, casually dipping between the waves, and progressively made my way down the length of the island. I should just paddle out to the shipping channel and see how the current is, I thought. I can always turn around.
I kept paddling until I eventually found myself directly across from Egmont Key with nothing but the 90-foot deep shipping channel between me and my target. There were plenty of boats around; in fact, some of them were actively engaged in rod-bending fights with Tarpon and other large sea creatures. I figured if anything went wrong they could at least rescue me. So, I struck off for the other side.
It was no big deal.
Sure, if you have not spent much time in a kayak and cannot roll one on your own then you should probably refrain from making the trip. But for someone who is in fair shape and capable enough, it really is not that hard. Granted, I’ve been kayaking once or twice myself, but it is really just a matter of ferrying across some current. Who knows, it is quite possible that there are times in the tide cycle where it gets worse, much worse.
Egmont Key State Park is really quite beautiful. Between the open beach front littered with palm trees, migratory birds, and turtle nests, and the interior island with its old lighthouse, red brick thoroughfares, and ruins, there is plenty to see and do. Wander the island or simply relax and stare out across the Gulf of Mexico. Either way, there is something romantic about the fact that Egmont was a resource for settlers in the 1700s, a place where Seminole Indian prisoners were kept in the 1800s, and a base for troops during the Civil and Spanish-American Wars.