SEMI-FINALIST 2015 FTF TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
Sharks. Sharks everywhere. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had seen them in movies; movies that had terrified me and made them out to be human hunters. I had seen them in marine parks and aquariums and I had swum with sharks vicariously in nature documentaries. I had just never been a mere reach from them, in the same space, the same water in which they swim so freely. It was breathtaking. The first breaths were lost to the initial fear. All subsequent breaths were lost in awe. I could not believe how incredibly beautiful they were. How smooth their skin looked. How their strong and bulky bodies were still majestic and graceful, even. I would stare as they swam by me and their tiny tiger-like eyes would stay focused on me long after their body had passed. We shared moment after moment. Each shark, different from the last, would only come close enough to investigate and then swim off hurriedly, more scared of me than I was of it. Initially, I felt almost crazy, feeling so much emotion, so much intrigue for these amazing animals. Yet with each visit to Looe Key Marine Sanctuary, I knew more. I would research sharks and scour information online. I would learn about their body language and their genders. I wanted to know all there was to know about them. As I learned about the sharks, I was also curious as to why the huge tarpon would swim in a circle at the bottom of the reef, as if they were on a merry-go-round. Then I wanted to know why the manta rays would flap their wings on the seagrass bottom and make the water cloudy in the process. I needed to know if the moray eel was as threatening as it looked, tucked into the gaps of the coral rocks. And why did the giant Goliath grouper –as wide as our boat – have an entourage of tiny fish following it everywhere it went? The tarpon were swimming in a circular pattern, known as ‘daisy chaining,’ a courtship ritual. The eagle spotted rays were feeding. They would stir up the sand to uncover the crabs and shellfish that were hiding from predators. Seeing the moray eel, I learned, was a rare occurrence as they are nocturnal. They are shy, but it would not have liked for me to get much closer than I did. Good thing! They have two sets of teeth and can weigh more than I do. The fish following the grouper around, do so for protection; although if they get too close to its mouth, can be inhaled as a quick meal. The pods of bottlenose dolphins we would see each day were exciting to watch. There was a calf that would swim curiously towards our boat and its mother would push it away to keep it safe. It was quite a treat to see that tiny tailfin come up out of the water. Each day out on the water, was better than the last. I could not get enough of the abundance of marine life. Our first family vacation to the beautiful Keys turned into an annual, month-long visit to see these beautiful marine creatures. For the last three years, we have been staying in Big Pine Key, Florida and take our boat to Looe Key every day weather permits. I share photos and videos of my encounters online and have encouraged my ocean-loving friends to visit via charter boats as well. The followers who have visited have fallen in love with the big blue, just as I did.
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