The sit-on-top sea kayak was wider and flatter than the river Dart I was used to. It was also more exposed. While the cove was protected, every small wave broke across the hull. My lips tasted salty and I was glad I had changed into my bathing suit.
I puttered along the shoreline, getting a sense of the boat’s balance and maneuverability. It didn’t take long to feel comfortable in the craft. The rhythmic motion of the paddle became an extension of my arms. Muscle and bone, plastic and metal, working in concert. Dip, stroke, glide. Repeat.
Despite the seawater and rising tide, there were no stretches of white sand beaches. Shells and surf and beach bums could be found on the Gulf side of Longboat Key. On the Bay side, alien-like mangroves marched along the water’s edge. Barnacles encrusted their trunks and bizarre fingers of root shot up, like aquatic stalks of asparagus. A snowy white egret watched me from the branches, wary and poised to take flight if I came too close.
Splash. A silvery torpedo arced out of the water and flopped back down, close enough the ripples lapped the boat. There are theories on why mullet jump. Some say it’s to escape predators. Others claim it’s to shake off parasites. A second fish launched to my left – once, twice, thrice – like a skipped stone. It looked fun. Perhaps that’s all there was to it.
I rested the paddle across my lap, content to watch the fish leap for a time. After a long winter up north, the hot sun was a luxury on bare shoulders. My fair skin would crisp in a heartbeat, but in the moment I didn’t care. It was the last day of a vacation I had so desperately needed. I wanted to soak it all in, too aware that tomorrow would take me back to ice and snow.
The kayak bobbed on the gentle swells, drawing the attention of a hungry pelican. With its yellow crest and startling blue eyes, he reminded me of a tow-headed boy I knew in college. Just like Michael, the bird lost interest when he realized I had nothing for him. He flew off to look for handouts elsewhere.
I glanced around, surprised at how far from shore I had drifted. The current wasn’t strong, but it was enough to draw me out into the deep water of the channel. A brisk wind tossed my hair about my face and the tide was starting to turn. Getting back to the cove was going to be hard work. I slid my hands farther apart, widening my grip on the paddle. I was going to need the leverage.
Something in the water below moved. I froze. A dark shadow slid beneath the boat. Suddenly seven feet of orange plastic felt ridiculously small.
My heart thumped as a second enormous shadow joined the first.
A long, grey nose poked out of the water to my right, close enough to touch. The dolphin fixed a dark eye on me, bright and curious. I didn’t dare blink. We stared at one another for an eternity, unmoving.
A blast of cold saltwater soaked me as a second bottlenose surfaced to my left and cleared its blowhole. I squealed as the kayak rocked. The first dolphin opened its mouth and chattered at me. It sounded like a laugh.
I could barely breathe. Up close, they were magnificent, wild, and carefree. Elation and terror warred in me. One of the creatures was the length of the boat, the other dwarfed it by several feet. Both outweighed me by several hundred pounds. A casual flip of their powerful tails could easily capsize the kayak.
For a few minutes the pair played around the boat, circling the bow, or swimming beneath and surfacing on the other side. From time to time they’d chirrup and whistle at me. Flash me a toothy grin before diving below again.
The thrum of a motor made me look up. A chartered fishing boat cruised towards us. I had to paddle hard to get out of the channel. By the time I cleared the boat’s wake, the dolphins had disappeared.
In a cloud of euphoria I paddled back to the boat launch. It wasn’t until I was on dry land that I remembered I had my camera with me the whole time. I hadn’t taken a single snap.