Key Largo. And one hell of an unforgettable (and illegal it turns out) experience.

I went up to Key Largo to visit Milk and Chels, the gorgeous young newlyweds who originally lived next to us when we first got our boat (and they first got their boat) in Minnesota. We had all spent one truly remarkable summer falling in love with each other and with being on the water, before Adam and I went down the river. Chels and Milk were in Key Largo visiting Tony and Alissa, another equally gorgeous and generous couple, whom Michael knew from high-school.

We all wanted to go out on the water so Milk was gassing up the boat. Alissa and Tony live in an amazing stilted house, right on the canal. From the patio/fire pit area in the yard I saw a manatee swimming like a graceful, fat, gray mermaid toward Milk, who was gassing up on the canal side of the boat. I ran down and jumped aboard, upsetting the boat and making Milk scold me because he almost got gas in the water. I threw my body way over the water to see the manatee as well as I could. She slowly, but methodically, swam with her skinny flippers, and her gigantic rudder of a tail, right up to me and stuck her nose out of the water. My face was a foot from her face. She reminded me of a puppy with her trusting, to the cusp of sad, eyes.

Time slowed down. It was one of those times where one is so completely in the moment that everything else fades away and there is nothing but the things one can touch, see, hear and smell. I slowly, gently as I could, laid my right hand on the top of her perfect head. She blew bubbles and looked into my eyes. She had huge slashes in her dappled gray back from a propeller. I rubbed my hand over the contours of her slippery gray face. She watched me. She raised her nose out of the water again and I softly rubbed her rough, thick whiskers and her mouth. I rubbed a hand slowly over her left eye. She closed it and blew out slowly. I was more gentle then I have ever been in my life, the slashes on her back breaking my heart. Every moment was precious. She worked her flippers so that she stayed underneath me.

Then she rolled over, clearly (seriously) wanting me to scratch her chin. She stayed upside-down for a long time. She reached up slowly and touched my hands and wrists with her flippers. She had huge fingernails, spread far apart, running down the sides. I rubbed her flippers. The strength in them surprised me. She reached up to rub her mouth and I rubbed all over her big belly, as far down as I could reach from the boat.

Chelsi came onto the boat with an appropriate, “oh my gooooood…” The manatee rolled over, let Chelsi rub her face and then when she felt safe turned over onto her back again. Together we leaned over the edge, our chins on our arms, our elbows touching, and our opposite arms practically enfolding this amazing animal. She showed us where to rub and we happily obliged as we cooed to, about and at her.

This same experience, almost exactly, would occur again later that day, with another manatee, while we kayaked through the amazing mangrove forest near their house. That one would follow us and come up again and again asking to be petted.

I can see why people love these big, beautiful creatures. And why they need to be protected. They are so gentle and so trusting.

What a hell of an unforgettable experience.

Edit; I did not realize it was illegal to touch manatees. I do now. And I get why. The closer any animal is to humans the more danger it is in and they clearly like humans very much. I will refrain from touching them in the future, however hard that may be for someone like myself. And so I am all the more grateful for these wonderful moments in my life.