Well, okay, I confess: That headline is a wee bit on the sensational side. But for an awful, harrowing moment, this past weekend, that headline flashed through my mind.
Best I start from beginning. As first light began to spread across the Banana River no-motor zone, north of Port Canaveral, Florida, I launched my kayak, ready for the five-mile pedal to where I planned to fish.
The no-motor zone is home to lots of wildlife and most days when I fish there I’ll see — often in close proximity to me — ospreys, roseate spoonbills, porpoises, alligators and manatees.
Don’t you worry about gators? I’m often asked that. I used to say no. Now I qualify it: No, but I’m terrified of manatees.
So just about the time I see coming over the horizon the top of the big red sun, to use Lucinda Williams' phrase, I notice something big and dark ahead. As I draw closer, I realize it’s variously the bodies, heads and huge flat tails of manatees in only three or four feet of water. Looks like a pair. I blush when I realize what they’re doing but the voyeur in me has to look. After all, there's not much else to look at, especially since the murky water and low light make it impossible to see much ahead.
Ah, but there was something just ahead, directly in my path.
I should mention here that my kayak is a Hobie Outback. Point being — it’s a “pedal yak.” Hobie’s clever Mirage-drive system means my pedals push two flippers amidships that move the kayak along at a dandy clip. Further point being — the kayak moves silently. No paddles dip and splash. In most instances, for fishermen that’s a plus.
Just then, it was a minus.
That’s because I was pedaling along in the perfect tranquility of the quiet estuary when suddenly, with a roar (yes, water can roar), a black hole opened up beneath me. That hole represented the spot where a thousand-pound animal had been resting quietly, completely submerged in no more than four feet of water, when it realized a large unknown object suddenly loomed directly above it.
As the yak dropped, I grabbed onto the gunwales and held on for dear life. As fast as it dropped, it then was thrust upward like a bucking bronco as a wall of water hit the side, listing the kayak hard to port, as salt spray poured over me.
In a moment, it was over. The aftermath was a heart trying to pound itself out of my chest and a complete soaking. It was as if someone had poured a five-gallon bucket of water over me: I was totally drenched. Ditto the kayak. I keep the scuppers in the tankwell behind me plugged so things stay dry. I rarely ship any water into the tankwell during a normal day. I looked back to see it was totally full of water leaving my gear floating around, so I pulled the plugs and let the well drain.
And it wasn’t just water. That huge tail had scooped sand from the bottom, throwing into the air a ton the gritty stuff, so now sand was all over me and the kayak — I even had to flush my reels with fresh water to get the sand out of the handles.
Once I got myself wrung out and continued pedaling, I did my best to watch ahead, though conditions still made it tough to spot anything not breaking the surface. Indeed, I did spook another one of the beasts, but the water may have been a little deeper and the manatee wasn’t directly below me when it exploded. Still, it seemed a too-close-for-comfort call.
The rest of my day proved relatively uneventful. In fact, it was pretty productive for big trout — I released quite a few gators of at least 24 inches.
At one point, I actually did have to wave my arms and scream obscenities at a curious gator that kept easing closer and closer to my anchored kayak, but it took the hint, slowly sinking out of sight. I saw it no more.
On the long pedal home, it was manatees and not gators that I had in mind. The light was better, and I make out a few manatees on the way, some just under the surface. I guarantee you, I gave ‘em a wide berth.