Under the spring equinox sun, the beach is flat and wide and blindingly bright. The water has not yet warmed to the season, but all around me people are stripping off shirts and sprinting for the waves, where the currents clash at the tip of the island.

“Lilly, let’s go!” comes the inevitable shout. I’m not wearing a swimsuit, so I wade in up to the knee, the salt and the chill biting at my calves. The next wave soaks me to the waist, and I don’t know if I yell “Screw it!” or just think it, but my shirt is coming off and I am diving into the ocean in a sports bra and running shorts.

It is peaceful, floating among the breakers, the natural buoyancy of my body allowing me to rise and fall over each swell that passes me by. My dad is next to me, now. The heat is eating through the sunscreen I’ve smeared liberally on my shoulders. All I can hear is the wind and the waves and someone yelling at me from the shore. Someone yelling at me? Multiple voices, now. I tilt my head to hear them better. “Look!” The screams carry. “Turn around! You guys! It’s a manatee!”

We turn around; me, my dad, a family friend nearby. Not two yards away from my feet in the water is a large, dark mass, round and soft-looking, distorted enough by the water and sunlight that it could be a patch of seaweed. But it is moving, and I hear my dad’s sharp intake of breath as we stumble backwards, and out of its way, tiny rip currents toying with our ankles as we go. It floats past us, at once leisurely and purposeful. For a moment its rounded snout is visible, its broad fins, the smooth quality of its skin. It is right there. So close I could reach out and touch it. So close that had I not moved it might have bumped against my ankles and caused more panic than wonder.

But here I am, watching it go by, and the moment it is past us we all let out a breath and start laughing, because it’s our first day on the coast and here is this great being, a creature we might see once on our week-long trip if we’re lucky, like a welcoming. Later that night I am sunburned and uncomfortable and, although surrounded by people, alone. But in that moment I was alive. ♦