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Swimming with the manatees
On nature
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It is early morning and I am snorkeling in Florida's Crystal River. I am wearing a mask, floating at the edge of Three Sisters Springs. I am here to see manatees, of which only 2,000 are left.
I am not the kind of person to disturb wild animals, especially endangered ones. I have picked the most ethical company I can find to help me see manatees. The guide tells us not to approach them. We may swim and move about in an area they frequent, and watch them.
But we can't approach them and we can't bother them. We can't poke them or surround them or, for heaven's sake, try to ride them.
In light green water, I am dog-paddling along, unable to see more than ten or twelve feet in front of me. So at first I am frightened when two dim and monstrous shapes materialize out of the gloom. They are so big. They glide past.  
One manatee turns, positioning itself alongside me, rolls over, and presents its belly. Its hide is rough and thick, covered with barnacles, algae, and sparse one-inch hairs. I stare at the animal - at its fins, its huge rounded tail, before it slowly paddles on.
Three others come. They go. Five appear. Now, below, I can make out manatees resting on the river bottom, in deep silt, sometimes atop each other, a fat knot of sea cows.
The scene is surreal: the suddenness of a shape many times bigger than myself appearing out of the green translucence.
I start to feel like a manatee. I wave my feet and glide, looking around at our water kingdom. The water is dimly lit by the sun climbing in the sky. The bottom is murky, invisible.
I glide and roll. I quit using my hands.
A mother and calf dispatch themselves from the group. The calf, curious, quits nursing when he sees me. He swims, tumbles and looks me in the eyes, and I roll with him, breathing when I reach the surface. The mother comes right up to me too. She rubs her body against mine and rolls, again and again.
Then she does something I do not expect. She puts her face with its searching eyes next to my goggles and she looks deep into my eyes. Within all the unknown, there is this attempt to enter another plane, which is wordless and weightless, fluid, a beautiful lightness. Her eye is a wrinkled spiral, beseeching.
And then I hear her speak to me. She is not really speaking, but she is saying something and I am listening.
You must help us, she says. You must help us.
Something rises in me that has been rising for a long time. I hear her distinctly. You must help us.

This week author and naturalist Ray is at Unity College in Maine, as an instructor at a workshop for teachers called "Education in a Changing Climate." She lives near Baxley.
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