I squeeze my eyes shut and yank the plastic goggles from my face. Pulling them away, I swipe at the inside, attempting to clear away the fog that is obstructing my vision. My feet are coated by the gooey bottom of the Crystal River.
The rest of my group remains face down in the water, searching for manatees. I shiver and my goggles fog up again. I stagger blindly towards the large white blob that I know is the motorboat. The water swirls and swishes around my legs as I walk against the current. I plunge one foot, then another, into the quaggy river bottom. “Almost there!” I sigh, and trudge onward.
Suddenly, I trip on a large object floating in the water. I fall onto its slippery surface and my feet search for the bottom. I take a deep breath and submerge my face into the murky depths. I see a beautiful blue-gray creature that I recognize at once as a manatee. Its shell-shaped tail strongly and majestically propels the animal forward. I lift my head and stare down into the clear patch of water.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
I consider calling out to my group as instructed, but at the same time I don’t want to. I don’t want this gorgeous creature to be hounded by humans.
I glance over at the manatee tour guide through my now clear goggles. He has river water and brume covering his goggles. I think of the rules: do not chase the manatees, do not scare them, and do not touch them. There are fines for breaking these rules and yet the tour guides are paid to break them! They are paid to hunt down manatees in motorboats. They are paid to dump people within two feet of these beautiful, endangered creatures. How is this any different from anyone else chasing a manatee?
I take a deep breath and watch the manatee swim away from me and toward the other end of the river, toward momentary freedom. This time my vision is obstructed by tears.