It could only happen to me … almost getting killed by Flipper.
The occasion was a kayak tour of the mangrove swamps off Matlacha, Fla., with Gulf Coast Kayak Co. It was a sunsplashed Florida morning as guide Mel Newell took five of us on a manatee tour of Pine Island. Even I needed a break from baseball. (Actually, it was a day off for the Red Sox.)
Mel was a card and kept us all entertained as he took us deeper and deeper into the swamps. I don’t know if it was the weather or the season, but there were no bugs. We were going upstream against the current as the stream got smaller and smaller. The guide pointed out one rare, endangered specimen after the other. I had no idea if he was correct or not. All birds look the same to me.
“That’s where I saw the alligator last week,” Mel said with a straight face. “They usually don’t like the salt water. He came out and hissed at me. I hissed back and then he left,” he said. I was the last one in the kayak line in a stream that was too narrow to conduct the high-speed exit which I longed for. My head spun around like the girl in “The Exorcist” looking for more gators. I could paddle backward if I had to.
But the other paddlers were all women and I didn’t want to make an ass of myself by fleeing the scene. We all continued upstream to a place where the water widened enough to effect a proper U-turn. I was also looking for snakes on the branches overhead while scanning the swamps for gators. After the U-turn, we had to go back downstream past the “gator spot.” There was no other way out.
We made remarkably good time headed downstream and it wasn’t only because of the current.
Mel took us at a leisurely pace into a peaceful cove. He started talking in such a low tone that we all huddled around his boat to hear what he said. We were sitting atop a group of manatees. This was one of their favorite spots to eat, he said. While he was talking, a form appeared to surface slowly between our kayaks.
It was a manatee.
Then, all around us, the strange forms appeared. First the snouts would break the water, then the forms would appear. They are between a dolphin and a whale in size. They eat only grass and sea plants and are actually descended from the elephant, if you can believe Mel. They submerge for the meal, then surface for a gulp of air before taking another helping. There was a strange air of peacefulness in the cove, watching the mammals surface again and again.
Mel said that love-starved sailors always mistook the manatees as mermaids, starting a legend or two. “Must have been long trips,” Mel said.
Then, it was time to leave for the hour paddle back to the dock. There was only a slight breeze and the return trip was pure pleasure. Mel warned us to watch for passing pleasure boats in the channel that was dug through the remarkably shallow waters. The water was so shallow that any of the paddlers could have gotten out of the kayaks and touched bottom anywhere on the trip.
We were almost in sight of the docks when the dolphins came by. This was truly a special day, with manatees in touching distance and dolphins doing their graceful dance perhaps 30 feet away to the left.
Then on my right there was a tremendous shape coming through the water, charging for my little kayak. It looked like a killer whale, something that would have set Captain Ahab’s heart aflame. I knew how the Arizona must have felt at Pearl Harbor. It was a torpedo, headed right for the kayak. It was a foot away.
And I thought the gator was a problem.
Naturally, I froze. I didn’t even have time to scream for mercy or make my peace with my maker (whoever he or she is) before the white whale dove under the kayak and disappeared just as quickly as it came.
Mel explained to me that it was just one of the dolphins that got into very shallow water and struggled to find a deeper channel while I was in the way. It was highly unlikely the dolphin would have ever touched me, he said reassuringly.
I replied that I knew it all along, in a voice that had raised several octaves. It was 80 degrees but the sweat that covered my body had little to do with the weather or the paddling.
But I could see it now, the obituary in the Maine papers. “Camden man the first in history to be killed by a dolphin. No one mourns.” Even if I survived the dolphin attack, I never would have lived it down.
I could hear Blue Eyes laughing, even if she was 2,000 miles away.
“Only you,” she would say.
Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at firstname.lastname@example.org.