Something Just As Good

What you expect isn’t always what you get.

Though I’ve vacationed in southwest Florida several times over the past several years, I was extra-excited to go last week because I hadn’t seen the ocean, there or anywhere else, since Covid hit. Always before, when I visited the Fort Myers area, I saw gators. Lots of gators. Suburban gators, basking without shyness on golf courses and walking trails. Gators in wild places like the Ding Darling Refuge on Sanibel Island. Captive gators in hokey but fun places like Gatorama or Everglades Wonder Garden.

Sadly, some of the first news I learned after my friends and I arrived in Florida was that an indigent man had been killed by an alligator while retrieving Frisbee golf discs from a pond near Largo. It’s mating season, wildlife officials warned. Gators are active.

But five days passed without a single gator sighting–except for genuine gator heads, in sizes ranging from baby to big boy–sold in kitschy shell shops up and down the coast.  Ewww.

On the last day of our vacation, we booked a boat ride. I asked our guide, Aaron, if he thought we might see gators, though I already knew the answer. Unlikely, he said. Gators live in fresh water. Sometimes they venture into brackish areas but seldom into salt water. But he promised we’d spot some equally cool stuff.

It turned out that Aaron has a degree in literature and is a serious reader, which was a treat for a boat full of book enthusiasts. We talked about Florida books, including the classic “The Everglades: River of Grass” by Marjory Stoneman Douglas and “A Land Remembered” by Patrick Smith, a wonderful novel about the Florida frontier. A native Floridian, Aaron was not only an excellent boat driver but a wealth of information.

He pointed out herons and ibis and egrets and cormorants and anhinga and a solitary roseate spoonbill flying high overhead. He took us to a spot where dolphins frolicked and one where sandy nests filled with sea turtle eggs were protected by wire enclosures. He proposed a trek to Naples, where he knew of a secret place he took only his most special passengers.

We said yes.

We passed endless numbers of gargantuan mansions and high-rise condominiums and boats so huge and sleek and powerful there was no way to even hazard a guess at how many millions they might have cost. Not exactly the adventure we had in mind.

But after a while we left the “civilized” world behind and entered a narrow tributary with a mangrove jungle covering the banks on either side of us. Aaron slowed the engine to trolling speed. And then we spotted what we were hoping for just beneath the surface of the shallow water: a languid gentle giant sometimes known as a sea cow. This lone manatee, once plentiful in Florida waters but now with their very existence threatened by pollution and loss of habitat, was within spitting distance of our boat. It swam alongside us for about a hundred yards, then hung a left into another tributary and was gone.

Which all goes to show that, every now and then, you find something just as good as what you were looking for. Sometimes even better.

(June 11, 2022)