Part 1 – Overcoming Fear
There are moments that change your life forever; events in which you instinctively know you will never be the same. This is my story about two species, each overcoming fears, and the ensuing spiritual exchange.
It started on a sunny Florida morning. As the pontoon boat slowly moved into the bay, the guide warned us. “Never touch a manatee’s face. Never crowd, chase or try to hold them. If you do, you will spend the rest of the trip sitting on the boat. Like a dog, manatees enjoy being scratched and will show you where with their flippers.”
My heart was racing with a mixture of fear and excitement. Soon, we arrived at our destination. This was more than a sightseeing trip. It was a test. At fourteen, I almost drowned in a public pool. Though I yearned to be in open water, I was terrified even in shoulder-high water. This was over 40 feet deep.
As I watched the others excitedly enter the water, a deep-seated panic saturated every cell of my being. I couldn’t move. I sheepishly looked at the guide only to see “Oh, no. There’s always got to be one,” reflected in his face. White-knuckled, I gripped the ladder and gingerly stepped over the edge.
The flipper impeded my foothold, and I slipped violently down the rungs smashing my body against them. My heart throbbed against the confines of the wet suit. A heat wave of terror rushed me. I was only in the water up to my waist, but my lungs felt like they were filling with water.
The guide encouraged me to keep going. My fear tormented me. In order to see the manatees, I had to face it. I tried to step down another rung. My foot slipped, and I flailed, trying desperately to catch myself. The sharp pain of the blows took my breath away.
At the last second, I managed to grab the bottom rung. My legs thrashed against the boat. The guide, who ran the boat solo, was also the videographer. He eventually had to leave me clinging to the boat…alone. After ten minutes, I still hadn’t let go. I could hear the others laughing just on the other side of the boat.
I was so angry with myself! “Let Go! LET GO!” Curse words flew freely and loudly from my lips as I heard my dreams floating merrily away. Grappling with my fear, something inside me snapped. “If you don’t let go, you will never know what you missed, and you will regret it for the rest of your life! Is that what you want? Now find your spine and LET GO!” I forced open my fingers and pushed myself away from the boat.
My head immediately went under. Panic and instinct rushed down my throat as I choked on foul-tasting water. I lunged back towards the boat. Tears filled my eyes as I clung to my fear and the ladder.
Then, something happened – a slight breeze of calm blew through me. I slowed my breathing. “I can do this. I can do this.” Slowly, I began to trust. I let go and gently floated away.
For the next several hours, I never saw a manatee. I was too late or crowded out. As we were getting ready to leave, the tour guide made sure everyone had a chance to see a manatee. Finally, everyone backed away and let me in. As my heart raced, I put my face down into the water. Just as I did, the manatee popped his head up to say hello. We miscalculated.
Before my brain registered the impending collision, the top of his head hit my mask full force sending me reeling. My nose had been broken twice in separate accidents only two months earlier and was still tender. As my eyes again filled with tears – this time from pain – I realized my journey had disappointedly ended. This was not what I had envisioned.
Part 2 – Overcoming Disappointment
For the next week I peered into my blackened eyes as I covered them with makeup. My bruised legs, ribs, and arms ached and reminded me of my very real disappointment. Each day my resolve grew more intense. I was not going to allow this to be my memory.
I rescheduled my flight and returned to the bay. This time, the “one in every trip” was not me. The young woman’s terror may have even surpassed mine. She never made it to the ladder. I tried my best to coax her. Eventually, I had to follow my dream and left her to peer down her own fear.
There were some obnoxious young men in this larger group, and I knew it would take both the guide and videographer to monitor them. They gave me permission to go off on my own as long as I stayed within sight.
I cautiously put my mask forward into the water still fighting intense fear. I tested the snorkel. “I can do this! I am snorkeling!” I began to paddle away from the group. The guide had warned, “Today is not a good day for manatees. We may not see any. The waters are especially murky.” I thought, “It’s OK. Maybe this whole journey was about conquering my fear.”
As I swam further away, something inside of me started calling to the manatees. “I’m a nice person. I was here before, and I didn’t get to see you. I’d really like to play with you if you’d like to play with me.” Silently, a giant submarine passed to my right.
All I could see was a body – no head or tail. I reached out and let my nails gently glide along its body. Then it was gone. I did it! I touched a manatee! I soaked in recognition of my success.
Then, out of the muck, a face formed before me. The manatee had come full circle and was staring straight at me through tiny button eyes. Her whiskery cow-like mouth was larger than my mask, nearly the size of my head. She was immense and within arms reach. We stared at each other intently.
I moved my hands up close to my shoulders as if I was in a robbery. She queried me with her stare as if to ask, “Are you good people or bad?” “Good people,” I responded. “I’m good people.” I stayed perfectly still. She turned her head off to one side with a piercing stare and waved her flipper next to her eye.
“Oh, no. They told me not to touch your face.” With great resolve, she glared at me and repeated her swiping motion. Then I saw it. She had seaweed covering the corner of her eye like a frustrating strand of hair. Carefully, I reached forward and brushed it away, immediately returning to my upright position. Again, she stared intently, turned her head, and gave the same motion on the other side.
There, too, covering the other eye was a strand of seaweed. I swept it away and pulled back. Then, time stopped, and we peered deeply into each other’s souls. Then she moved forward and French kissed my mask as if to say thank you. Though I knew she was “just exploring me,” my heart burst beyond the confines of my suit and engulfed her with love.
When she had finished, I wiped off the slimy gook so I could see. As I did, she began to roll her massive body under me and made a sweeping motion across her stomach with her flippers. I began to scratch wondering if I was doing it right. As I became more comfortable, I ventured up and down her long torso. Her skin felt like an elephant. It made sense. They are the closest relatives.
I was jarred out of my thoughts by her full-body quake. She shivered and shook, her flippers flailed, and milk squirted out from two previously unnoticed nipples hidden under her flippers. I tickled her! She immediately shot upright and gave a stern look as if to ask me if I intended to irritate her. I pulled my hands back and apologized profusely.
Her body softened as if to acknowledge my regret, and she again curled below me to continue. Our love-fest seemed to last for hours as I soaked in every inch of her as she slowly rolled in blissfulness.
Once, I thought, “I wonder how large you are.” She lifted her head and looked at me like a teacher pondering how to answer a child. Then she raised her body to the surface, lifting me completely out of the water, forcing me to wrap my arms around her horse-sized body. It was as if she replied, “See, I’m this big.”
“I’m hugging a manatee!” I could feel tears well in my eyes. “She heard me.”
From far away, the guide called us back to the boat. My heart sank. I didn’t want to leave her. “I have to go.” She looked at me puzzled with her expressive button eyes. “No you don’t. You can stay and play.” It hurt to look at her. “I can’t. I have to go.”
I turned in the water toward the boat. She swam around and blocked me. “Stay.” It was almost auditory. “Stay and play with me. I like you.” “I can’t. I want to, but I can’t. I have to go. They’re waiting.” My heart broke as I turn to swim around her. Again, she intercepted, pleading for companionship. That’s when I learned you can’t sob with a snorkel mask on.
As my heart shattered, I begged her to understand it wasn’t my choice. I would stay for eternity if I could. However, the boat had to leave; and I had to be on it. I had to go. Through my tears, I saw her disappointment. Her eyes lowered then came back with a deep, kind look as if to say, “I understand.” Then she turned and slowly swam away.
I tried to mask my runny nose and tear-drenched eyes from the others as I climbed aboard, keeping my head low. I shuffled to the back of the boat. The guide came back with a box of tissue. “We need to talk.”
Part 3 – The Rewards of Courage
“You just experienced something incredible, yes?” I nodded my head trying to push down the tears.
“I need you to tell me everything you can about that manatee. Did she have any wounds? (Propellers from boats maim and kill hundreds of these beautiful, trusting souls every year.) “No, no. She is fine. She’s even breast feeding.” I explained how I knew.
The guide’s excitement was palpable. “You have no idea how lucky you are. Like elephants, manatees have an incredible memory. They are a complex society lead by a matriarch who passes on her wisdom of the safe migration routes and feeding grounds.”
“You just spent the last few hours with the matriarch of this herd. She has been missing for over two years. We thought she was dead. Not only is she alive, but she has a calf! I wanted to film her. But I was sure she would flee.”
My heartache shifted to gratitude. For years, she hid from humans to keep her cub safe. Above all the guides she remembered, there was something about me she chose to trust. We each overcame incredible fear. Our reward was to share a moment in time, in the loving tenderness of another species, communicating and creating a bond that will last for eternity.
There are lines flowing through our lives, connecting and propelling us through our journey. This line taught me to face my fears, to overcome my obstacles, to continue trying despite disappointments, and to acknowledge accomplishments along the way. The rewards can be far greater than my wildest dreams.
What’s holding you back?
Lynda Colter-Bergh is the CEO of Bottom Lines Consulting and is a practical business consultant. Her passion is to help small businesses succeed. She starts by making sure her clients aren’t wasting money with their merchant services account. It’s one of the fastest ways to free up cash flow. She then focuses on the day-to-day struggles of the business, combining of her experience and her intuition to identify new options and opportunities. Lynda helps businesses identify their key differentiators, target markets, niches, sales opportunities, marketing materials, channel partner programs and prides herself on her ability to foresee potential issues, overcome obstacles, and create new avenues for income. Contact – Website – Facebook
Photo Credit – FF16