Visiting Manatees and Mermaids

I awakened feeling I was in a strange place. The room was dark, darker than rooms ever are. Oh. I was in a small motel room. The curtains block out sunshine so weary travelers can sleep. I lay there listening to the slow, regular breathing of my daughter in the next bed. She was still deep in sleep. I listened for the softer breathing of my three granddaughters. I was wide awake, ready to get up. What time was it? I couldn't read my watch in the darkness. No one stirred. I turned over and pulled the blanket over my head and tried to go back to sleep. We were on a break from a long, cold winter in northern Virginia. If April is the cruelest month, February is the longest. In the midst of a snowstorm my daughter said, ''Why don't we take the kids and go to Florida for 10 days?'' Just the thought of that cheered us. My granddaughter Zoe had wanted to see the manatees that she had been learning about in school. We decided to go visit them. A perfectly sensible reason to go to Florida in February. Although we would spend over half our time driving, the thought of wearing shorts and sunscreen was irresistible. I opened my eyes again and looked around. Everybody still asleep. Nobody stirring. Tiny rays of sun were slipping past the dark curtain, suggesting it must be noon, at least. How could they sleep so long? I turned over and pretended to be asleep. When we reached Homosassa Springs on the Gulf Coast we took a boat to the island pool where the manatees congregate. Injured manatees - frequently hurt by motorboat propellers while they graze in shallow water - are brought here and nursed back to health. They settle in and stay year round. Usually, manatees move into freshwater rivers and pools during winter and return to the ocean in the spring. This ability to change from fresh water to salt water and back is a remarkable adaptation. None of us had ever seen a real manatee. Pictures of the ''sea cow'' show massive, round creatures, much like a swimming meatloaf. The ancient who confused manatees with mermaids surely had a vivid imagination. While waiting for the gamekeeper to come feed them, we saw our first manatee. Gliding gracefully through the water with imperceptible movement, it swam right to the bank where Zoe was standing. In her eagerness to see, she crowded as close as possible to the bank. Another and another came, gliding in a ballet of quiet bends and graceful turns just below the surface of the water. Their faces are massive, with huge bulbous noses. They delicately took carrots from the gamekeeper with their noses, much as an elephant uses its trunk. They would rise out of the water and plead for a carrot in a most appealing way. The second morning I awoke again to the strange darkness and the even sound of breath going in and out. Everyone was asleep. I turned over and pretended to be asleep. I turned over again and tried the other side. I pushed my pillow off onto the floor and enjoyed the sweet cool space under it. I felt my oldest granddaughter sit up in bed. With one eye barely open I saw her look around, then lie back down and pull the cover over her head. She kept trying to settle in, and as I dozed off I understood that she was also pretending to be asleep, so as not to bother anybody. Since we were nearby, we decided to visit an aquatic show, where superb swimmers dress as mermaids and perform in an underwater theater. The performance was Hans Christian Anderson's ''The Little Mermaid.'' In the front row the three granddaughters sat fascinated, watching the beautiful young creatures with iridescent tails. I believe the prince won three small hearts as he vanquished the sea witch and courted the little mermaid. The second show of the day found us back in the front row by unanimous vote of the granddaughters. The next morning, once again, I awoke to an artificially dark room full of sleepers. I lay there annoyed, pretending to be asleep. I felt the oldest granddaughter sit up and then lie back down again. I started giggling and wondered how many people in the room were pretending to be asleep so they wouldn't bother anyone. ''Are you awake?'' I whispered. ''Yes,'' came the whispered reply. ''Shall we get up and go for a walk? Get some hot chocolate?'' I asked. ''Yes,'' she replied. Quietly we dressed and left the motel room. It was a glorious morning. We walked along the riverbank, then over to a little cafe for hot chocolate. I asked her, ''Were you pretending to be asleep?'' ''Yes,'' she replied. ''I woke up and saw that everybody was asleep so I pretended to be asleep, too.'' ''So did I,'' I replied. She giggled. We ordered hot chocolates to go.

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