Several young kids and I were splashing in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday when we shared a rare and beautiful connection with nature. One of the girls was quite concerned about stingrays; so much so that she was hesitant to wade in at first, wondering if we would encounter them. After some reassurance, she agreed to take the proverbial plunge and hit the ‘ray-infested’ waters.
We washed the sand from our bodies while we laughed and frolicked in the shallows. We dug up shells with our toes, and we played tag – it’s quite a work out to run in waist-deep water. Finally, satiated we sat, half-submerged in the shallow calf-deep waters letting the clear Gulf waters permeate our souls.
I spotted a school of cownose rays, a common migrant through our waters during this time of year. Of course, these were swimming towards us, a small school of eight or so fish foraging along the bottom. This is a beautiful site, and a powerful ocean encounter – to be surrounded by foraging cownose rays – unless of course, one of you is 10 years old with a strong phobia of stingrays. Miraculously, I somehow convinced the kids that staying calm was our only option now – to let them flow past, doing what they do naturally, ignoring our presence in their ocean.
Ever concerned with safety, visions of sea school pandemonium in the middle of a stingray school in shallow water were forefront on my mind; a sure recipe for a really bad afternoon. But once safely past us, we followed them and watched the magical creatures, mesmerized by their elegance as they appeared to float on magical wings seeking their prey under the soft white sands. They seemed unconcerned by our presence.
After a long time, I was drawn in by the serenity and did something we rarely do. I reached down and stroked the long tail of one (far past the poisonous stinger – safe from its barbed defense). The ray remained still, indifferent to my touch, intent on its activities. Wide-eyed, my little 10 year-old stingray-phobic friend softly uttered, “cool – can I do that?”
Twenty minutes ago, this child would not go in the Gulf because of her fear of stingrays. With her family, she has adamantly refused to pet captive rays in aquariums where their stingers have been removed from their bodies. Yesterday, the magic of nature took over as she reached down to stroke the tip of a tail, and then did it again just to make sure it was real.
I hope that ray felt the same intense connection that we did in the clear, shallow waters in the Gulf of Mexico. I hope it felt the thrill and exultation of trust between creatures – if only just for a moment.
Explore the ocean – it will reach back and touch you.