I returned home earlier this week from a short but much-needed trip to the ocean. This time it was to Florida’s Gulf Coast, the more tropical and laid back side of the state, in my opinion.
Right out in the water off the beach in this photo, I encountered sting rays for the first time in their natural environment. My friend and I saw them in the morning from our balcony, swimming around the legs of a couple. From the vantage point of the sixth-floor hotel room, they appeared to be about the size of small dogs – nothing too intimidating, really. The rays moved elegantly in tandem, circling through the water along the shoreline, skimming along the beach at one point, their side fins skipping through the waves. The woman appeared a bit nervous about their presence, and scampered out of the water once they came too close. The man bravely stayed put. I watched them for quite awhile, sipping my coffee.
Later on my friend and I decided to head down to the beach. The heat of the day had truly kicked in and the afternoon sun was blazing. The temperature and humidity were higher than average, so it felt more like June than April. After soaking up some sun for awhile (under a layer of SPF 50), a dip in the crystal clear water sounded like heaven.
I had seen schools of small fish earlier, clustered together for safety near the rocks along the jetty. Of course, I knew the animals who eat them must know they were there, too, and pretty soon two large, dark shapes started gliding toward me from deeper water. Now I love the ocean, but watching Jaws years ago as a kid left me with a lingering (and healthy, I think) fear of its more mysterious inhabitants. After a momentary feeling of pure panic, I realized it was the two rays returning and became suddenly giddy with excitement. They looked a lot larger up close, however. And the closer they got, the more the size of Golden Retrievers they appeared.
They swam around my friend and I, not coming too near. I think I would have preferred them swimming right up to me, gliding their skin across my legs, fulfilling my nature-bonding fantasy, not remembering the fate of poor Steve Irwin in my delight at their presence.
I recalled my more pleasant experiences of feeding them small fish at nature parks, they way their bodies obscured my view of my hand for the second when they passed over, snatching up the fish. I remembered the slight panic of that moment, then how it was followed by the cool, smooth, rubberiness of their flesh fluttering briefly against my arm, a soothing balm for my fear. I never felt even a touch of teeth when the fish left my hand. The memory reassured me, and I relaxed into joy at the moment of meeting between us.
But the rays didn’t linger. Maybe that was because I did try to them follow a bit in hopes of touching one, even briefly, despite my friend’s teasing. Too soon they glided off, back into the blue-green depths, their world separate and yet still so connected to mine. I wished them a good journey, and left the ocean a happy girl.