Sunday, April 09, 2006

Foam Flecks and Bobbing Coconuts

The other day, I stood on a sea wall gazing out at Biscayne Bay, mesmerized by the soothing chop of the water. My eyes were drawn to two broken white lines on the water's surface, between the pilings that guide boats into the nearby marina. I assumed at first that the lines were foam, probably from the wake of a boat that had recently passed. But I hadn't noticed a boat. Surely I wasn't in so much of a trance that one could have passed right by me without my seeing it.

As I watched and wondered, the white patches seemed to undulate on the water's surface with something more than the lightness of foam. I thought I could also see patches of gray. If this were merely the wake of a boat, wouldn't it have dissipated more quickly? Not having binoculars, I was forced to rely on my own vision in the brilliant mid-afternoon sun--my own vision coupled with a wishful imagination.

Soon I felt sure there was something alive in the water and I believed I knew what it was--manatees. Not one, but a small group of them, grazing on the abundant plant life in the shallow harbor. I came to that conclusion logically, since this part of the bay is known as a favored feeding ground for the gentle sea cows. In fact, boats are required to travel slowly as they make their way out to the open bay, lest they injure the endangered creatures with their propellers.

I recently read that manatees sometimes congregate in groups, so the idea that four or five of them might be just offshore didn't seem too farfetched, even though the total number of manatees in Florida's waters is probably under four thousand. And the fact that their coloration is normally a uniform gray didn't give me pause. It seemed likely that time (manatees can live for up to 60 years) and run-ins with boats and other obstacles could produce the mottled skin that appeared to be just under the water's surface.

I'd also read that from the shore manatees look like bobbing coconuts, an effect created when they break the surface with their rounded snouts to take in air. (Like whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions, manatees are mammals.) I had to admit that amid the roiling, mottled water I didn't see anything that reminded me of a bobbing coconut. Still I watched, riveted, as the manatees seemed to migrate slowly toward the opposite shore. I didn't want to believe that what I was seeing was merely flecks of foam being pulled by the current. I wanted to believe that manatees were out there. The idea that I might briefly be witnessing their lives in the wild thrilled me to the core.

The following evening, at sunset, as I walked by the same spot on the sea wall, I saw a long double white line leading through the channel directly to the marina. This time there was no doubt--these lines were made by the wake of a boat. They were too regular to be anything else and they led directly to one of the boat slips. Apparently, even though the boat had passed sometime earlier, the foam left in its wake lingered. So the mystery of my supposed manatee sighting was solved. The forms I'd imagined in the water had merely been a wake's foam after all. In the wake of that realization, I was left with a feeling of sadness. A momentary connection with the wider universe seemed to have been lost.

But I haven't given up. I'm on the lookout for bobbing coconuts that aren't actually coconuts.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful piece, Barbara. I loved it....was right there in Miama, watching with you, letting my imagination be there right with you....and really felt sad when I knew it was just boat foam. You painted a fantastic picture....I want more.

Anonymous said...

Delightful piece full of poetry and merging with hope of connection with other forms of life. Beautiful imagery and a powerful way of connecting the reader to the imagination of the writer.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Barbara, I loved reading this. It reminded me of once when I was watching out my kitchen window one October day and spied hundreds of wrens flitting about on the front lawn. I'd never seen anything like it and ran for my camera. Imagine my surprise when on closer consideration the wrens turned into dried leaves from the lacy birch tree, blowing about in the wind. Vision is such a fragile thing, is it not? And the imagination can be, at times, so much more interesting than reality. Thanks Barbara.