We pulled in after dark. A burning orange sun had plunged into the Gulf, streaking clouds red and purple and gold, and now the sky was a cool bluish-black. The night was warm and wet as lion’s breath. A stiff wind blew palm fronds skyward. Waves slapped the jetty. Our houseboat, Lil’ Bamboo, sat rocking at the pier.
“It’s perfect!” Sineah said. “I call the hammock.” Bethany laughed. We all went inside.
The ceiling hung low but the cabin was spacious, with three beds, a small kitchen, a bathroom and good air conditioning. One bed sat tucked under the helm. “I feel like Harry Potter,” Bethany said crawling in. Another hung in the back; I took that. Sineah claimed the third, a deep bench couch that served double duty. Our host showed herself out, but not before pointing to the roof deck: “Best sunsets in the Keys,” she said.
The three of us made our way topside without a word. Waves licked the hull 10 feet below, pushed tall by the breeze. We sat quietly, a bamboo awning overhead surrounded by miles of Gulf sky. Sineah was right: it was perfect.
The next morning the stiff wind held. I called a dive company to ask about going to the reef. “Anyone who takes you snorkeling today is just stealing your money,” the man said. “It’s three-to-four foot seas, far too rough for snorkelers. Tomorrow will be better.”
I hung up the phone and looked outside. Even here on the Gulfside there were whitecaps, I could imagine what things would look like offshore. But I was here to dive. The whitecaps outside didn’t look imposing, mild chop, so I grabbed my fins and mask. “I’m going in,” I said.
“I’m going with you,” Sineah replied.
Sometimes wildness seems far away. Sometimes it lives at your doorstep.
I waded into the water, fins tucked under my arm. The bottom was sandy, but soon it turned to seagrass filled with upside-down jellyfish. I would need to lift my feet and be swimming before I got to the grass, even in water barely waist-deep. I spit in my mask and rubbed it around the lenses, then pulled the mask over my head and put the snorkel in my mouth. Sinking into the water I pulled the fins on and set out. Sineah followed close behind wearing goggles.
We swam. 40 feet from Lil’ Bamboo was barely eight feet of water. The seagrass swayed everywhere, festered with bottom-dwelling jellies. Parrotfish jetted about. We dove and resurfaced, dove and resurfaced, exploring the world beneath the waves. Anemones hung from pilings and drowned mooring buoys, two-foot barracudas lurked nearby. Even here there was much to see. I held my breath and dove, clearing my ears as I sank, awash and floating in Caribbean warmth.
That’s when it came: dark, the size of a small grizzly floating just beneath the surface—a manatee, mere feet away. His face looked like a bulldog, nose pressed too close to his eyes. He flaunted a disk the size of a large pizza for a tail. It swayed up and down like a tremendous wave propeller. His body, both fat and sleek, glided. I saw him first, but Sineah was right at my side. I let out a shout through the snorkel, a twisted version of “OH MY GOD!” His head hovered a few inches from the surface as he drifted past, an underwater ghost. Nothing so ungainly ever looked so graceful.
I did not follow him. He moved peacefully, and I didn’t want to disturb him. He disappeared into the inky distance. In his wake the water seemed quieter.
“If you want to see wildlife, it is on foot, and quietly, that you must explore a forest. It is the same with the sea. You must stroll at a walking pace, so to speak, to see the wealth and abundance that it holds.”
– Yann Martel, Life of Pi
Sineah and I kept swimming, kept poking around for more, waiting for another encounter with such a majestic sea mammal. But the show was over. We worked our way back to the beach. Climbing out I pulled my fins off.
“What time do you think it is?” I asked, spitting out my snorkel.
“I don’t know,” she said, “maybe 9 a.m.?”
Morning of day one. Welcome to the Keys. ⛵️