I am Gus, a manatee who was, at one point, happily settled in the water off Big Pine Key. For those who don’t know, Big Pine Key is an island in a long chain stretching from the southern tip of Florida toward Cuba. Well, the ocean is no longer my home, sadly. But I don’t want to get into that. Oh, what’s that? You want to hear the story? Okay, fine. But don’t interrupt me, alright?
Anyway, there I was drifting along off the beach of Bahia Honda, looking for some of that new seaweed that I had heard so much about, when a current caught me. It was the strongest current I had ever felt, and it was dragging me away from the safe shore! So I kick my tail into overdrive, see? And work against the current, my flippers and tail churning up water like you’ve never seen, but it didn’t seem to do any good. After a while, I accepted the inevitable, and let the current drag me out to sea. With any luck, after it dropped me in the middle of the ocean, I could find my way back to the island.
My mind drifted to thoughts of succulent sea grass, which meant that my body was unattended, which further meant that anything that got in my way would either get knocked over, or knock me out. A few minutes pass, and then… Bam! I meet something with a little more force than I expected. Dazed, I look around. What did I hit? One of those boat dealies, with a motor and everything. So I’m about to run in fear, cause, you know, boats kill a lot of us manatees every year, so I’m pretty afraid. But you know what? The motor wasn’t running, so no threat right? Wrong! A guy in the boat poked his head out, and he looked pretty darn angry, so I try to act inconspicuous, whistling and all that. But, he saw me, of course. It is kinda hard to miss a 1,000 pound grey wrinkled sea cow in the wide open blue ocean.
“Hey, YOU!” he screamed, holding up a piece of whole wheat bread and a slab of bologna. “Do you have any idea how long it me took to make that sandwich?” I’m about to apologize, but then I got curious. “How long?” I asked, trying to seem all innocent-like. “Well, not terribly long. But it was a pretty good sandwich, man!” What a weirdo, I think. “Yeah, well sorry, ‘Man’, but I gotta go.” So I turn away, muttering about weird dudes with non-meat luncheon meat, ready to start the long journey home, when the nut starts flipping out. “You think you can blow me off? FOOL! I shall make you pay! You will never forget the time you crossed Ed, the mightiest wizard on the east coast!” So now I was figuring the guy was really crazy, so, without turning around, I yell back, “yeah, whatever. See ya, bud.”
Now he’s just going insane, and he jumps onto my back and starts shouting nonsense, like some kind of magic spells. “Now you’ll pay!” he shouts, then a flash of light, and I was gone. I mean like, gone. No longer in the ocean. Instead I was a Styrofoam knockoff, mailbox between my hands, standing upright on my tail in front of some ice cream shop in a frozen land called “South Dakota.” The owners called me “Gus.” It was devastating, but I worked through it by talking with the mailman.
Now I’m here, watching mooks go in and out giving my owners money… oh, I didn’t mean you, I meant, um, uh … well, it was nice talkin, but I gotta go. You know, job and all. Hey, maybe I’ll see ya around. Peace.
Gus the manatee’s story begins many years ago, in the warm waters off the coast of south Florida. Born a pup, barely bigger than a dog, his family made its home in an emerald lagoon, surrounded by mangroves. He was happy and playful, munching sea grass and swimming in the currents with his friends. But one day, something terrible happened.
A monster hurricane whipped up in the south Atlantic and made its way westward across the Caribbean Sea to Florida. Gus was out swimming when the storm hit. His mother was calling him, but he was having too much fun to notice.
Suddenly, giant swells crashed all around. The hurricane had arrived. The sheer force of the waves started to pull Gus out to sea, no matter how hard he fought against them. Struggling mightily, he was thrown around and dragged, wailing, into open water.
Hours later, the waves finally settled and the winds quieted. Gus looked around, exhausted. He had no idea where he was. There were no landmarks- just water, as far as the eye could see. He began to cry. He missed his mother, his friends, the lagoon- but most of all he missed the sea grass. He was starving. He moaned, and floated face up in a daze.
There he lay for hours, wallowing in self-pity. But then, his salvation arrived- a buoy, floating in the ocean. He held on weakly, clutching with his flippers. Gazing adoringly at his savior, he noticed the buoy had something growing on the bottom- sea grass! He ate until he could eat no more, and lay back in the water, full and happy. It seemed his luck was finally turning.
FLASH. Gus blinked as a flash of light- brighter than boats, brighter even than the sun- illuminated the sky. He wondered what on earth could create such a light.
BOOM. Gus was stunned by the loudest sound he had ever heard, a resounding boom, louder than the loudest wind, louder than a thousand speedboats.
He saw something rising in the distance. A column of water, higher than the clouds. It was wide- wide as an island. It hung in the air, impossibly, for several seconds. Then it came crashing down.
He could see the wave long before it hit him. The sea was smooth as glass, and yet here a fifty foot wave was screaming toward him. He was frozen in fear, unable to swim, or even scream. Then the wave was upon him.
It slammed into him with the force of a thousand cruise liners. He felt himself rising to the top of the tumult. He opened his eyes, and saw he was dozens of feet above the sea. In that moment he felt weightless, and thrilled. He let out a triumphant cry, which quickly turned into a howl of terror as he saw himself hurtling toward the water. He closed his eyes.
Gus slammed into the surface of the ocean, and was dragged under by the force of the tsunami. He lay there, stunned, unbelieving. He weakly tried to swim to the surface, but his fins didn’t respond. He felt the cold ocean envelop him as his vision turned dark.
Gus awoke, in a daze. He was dry- he thought. Maybe not. He cast his gaze around his surroundings. He was in a human room- on a boat, maybe? It was warm in here, light streamed in through the windows. Was he dead?
He looked down, and saw that he was lying in a kiddy pool filled with sea water. He tried to say something in manatee, but his throat was parched shut. He wheezed for a little while, trying to say something- anything.
His efforts finally drew some help. A man walked in, dressed in white. The man pulled a water bottle from the table behind him, and opened it. Upending the bottle above Gus’ parched mouth, he let the cold water drip down.
“You’re lucky to be alive, big fella.” The man said, looking at Gus. “You were one of them sea critters caught in the blast zone. You were on death’s door when we found you. You’re all right now, ain’t ya?”
The man looked at Gus funny now. “The doc had a look at you. Said the radiation from the bomb changed ya- mutated ya.”
He took Gus’ flipper in his hand and he pulled Gus upright. Gus flailed for a second, and then found his balance, resting on his tail. He was so surprised that he promptly fell over.
The man laughed uproariously. “The doctor was right- you are special!” He chuckled.
Gus took a deep breath and stood up again on his tail–this time of his own accord. He barked happily, and spun around until he felt dizzy. He fell down again, heavily, into the swimming pool. Water splashed everywhere. The man kept laughing and said, “Welcome aboard, lad.”
Over the next couple of weeks Gus had a lot of fun. He learned that the boat he was on was a Coast Guard cutter, and his new friend was the captain. He learned to speak quickly- in only a couple of days, he could say simple words. In a week he could carry on entire conversations. He learned to be a sailor- how to tack, tie, climb and bail.
He learned to eat like a man too. Steak, broccoli, soup- but his favorite was ice cream. He couldn’t get enough. Chocolate, vanilla, mint chocolate chip- he loved them all. There was nothing he liked more than to relax with an ice cream cone at the end of a long day. The cook taught him how to make ice cream so the crew was never without a few gallons of their favorite flavor.
Despite his new friends, Gus was homesick. One day, he told the sailors that he was leaving to find his lagoon. The tearful goodbyes were hard on everyone.
His friend the captain gave him a chart to help Gus find his way back home. The crew gave him a Styrofoam cooler loaded with mint chocolate chip. Gus and the Captain saluted each other, and the captain said, “My friend, we may never see each other ever again. It’s been an honor knowing you. Good luck and Godspeed.”
Gus clambered over the side of the ship and into the Atlantic Ocean. He swam away from the ship, sad to leave his new friends, but excited to see his family again.
After days of swimming, and after he had eaten all his ice cream, Gus arrived at the mouth of the lagoon. Filled with excitement, he swam inside.
When his friends and family saw him, they cheered and crowded up next to him. Breathlessly, he recounted everything that had happened to him- from the flash of light, to the great wave, to the kind captain. He posed for them on the dry land, standing on his rear flipper, and even holding a strange black box with a red flag that seemed designed to hold a few gallons of rocky road. But most importantly of all, he told them how to make ice cream.
That night, all the creatures of the lagoon threw the biggest party the sea had ever seen. Everyone was invited- the gulls, the fish, even the dolphins (even though they are usually a little snobbish they wanted to try Gus’ newest concoction—something called Shave Ice).
Eventually, after all the excitement died down, Gus opened a shop, making his ice cream and Shave Ice and giving it to his friends. Everyone thought it was awesome. He named it Gus’ Best Ice Cream. He later fled to the Black Hills of South Dakota to escape the crowds.
And Gus was happy.