My Big, Fat Greek Getaway, Part 3

On my walks down Tarpon Avenue to the bayou the past several mornings, I’d heard other bayou walkers discuss manatee sightings. Helpful individuals pointed out spots where they had surfaced near the shore. Several times, I paused on my walk and sat to watch — to no avail.

The Gulf of Mexico is one of just three places in the world where these elephant-like mammals are found.  Manatee are attracted to the warmer waters of the bayou, especially during mating season. They spend most of their time lying on the ocean floor, grazing on underwater plant life, surfacing every 20 minutes or so to take in oxygen through their nostrils. I have only seen manatee in an aquarium and had hopes that on my Big, Fat Greek Getaway to Tarpon Springs, Florida, I might spy one in the wild.

My friend and I decided that Monday’s adventure would be kayaking around the bayou. As the friendly kayak-and-bicycle man shoved our boats into the bayou, he told us where to expect to find manatee and wished us luck.

For two luscious hours we paddled and floated our way around the bayou, getting up-close-and-personal with pelicans, cranes, a jet ski, sponge boats and another kayaker — but no manatee.

With choppy waves rocking our slender boats, we decided to give up the hunt and returned to the launch, calling kayak-man for a pick-up. His first question was “What did you think of the manatee?” The poor fellow seemed let down to hear we hadn’t come upon a single water elephant. He assured us they were out there and we agreed that they must be, but we hadn’t found them.

“It’s okay,” I told him. “We didn’t come to Florida to see manatee. Maybe next time.”

We came to Florida in search of sunshine, recreation, solitude and maybe a new perspective on the lives we live day-to-day back in Indiana. So, on this day of searching, it’s okay that we didn’t find manatee. But we did make a few other discoveries:

On a back street, away from the sponge, shell and T-shirt vendors that line the sponge docks, we stepped into the tiny, aquamarine shop of Arlyne, an artisan transplanted from New York to Florida. Arlyne supports her two young sons by making beautiful, original jewelry. She customized a piece for me as we talked about the journey her mother-in-law and I have taken through breast cancer. Arlyne shared her efforts to provide her sons with healthful meals and to support her mother-in-law as she begins radiation treatments. I had to smile when I found that Arlyne quotes Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” on her website.

“And remember, the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God.”

I felt honored to meet and converse with Arlyne. It’s a blessing to recognize a kindred spirit when you find one.

As we made our way to our parked car, we stopped in front of an independent sponge vendor who was beginning to pack up her wares. She paused to answer our questions. Another transplant, this time from the upper Midwest, the saleswoman mentioned she has a son who dives for unique Rock Island wool sponges. The company she sells for is still run by a descendant of the Greek family who started the sponge industry at Tarpon Springs. Standing on a windy street corner, we received an education, and walked away with beautiful wool sponges and Greek olive oil soap.

Of course, no day of exploring would be complete without food. Today’s culinary treat was lamb and beef gyros, with a side of Kalamata olives and Greek fried potatoes.

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