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The moment of exposure

A picture is something taken to capture a moment that was interrupted to take a picture. But sometimes the moment is big enough that taking a picture is no interruption at all. I experienced such a moment today after running errands in the small town of Bradenton with my daughter, Jessie, and her buddy Stephenie. We were approaching the north end of the Old Green Bridge into Palmetto when we noticed ahead to our right a disturbance near shore in the Manatee River. It looked like a big black garbage bag at first, rumpling in the current, then the water on its back glistened in the 4 o'clock sun as it undulated like a porpoise in distress.

"What is that?" I asked.

"Pull over, pull over, pull over," said Jessie, "into that park!"

Immediate access to tiny East Riverside Park seemed prophetic. Ours was the only vehicle in the lot. The girls thrust open their doors as soon as the Trooper braked into a space, while I kept my head enough to lock up before jogging behind their sprinting heels along the concrete sea wall. We'd already discussed in the car how I'd punch 911 on my cell phone if we found a porpoise tangled, beached or dying. Or maybe it was one of those right whales. . . .

"It's a manatee!" yelled Jessie.

But it was many. I smiled at the girls' captivated faces as they surveyed the wild display, only 50 feet away in the shallow water. Humped backs here then there, breaking the surface and ducking back under, undulating all right, one on top of another, then broad snouts snorkeling up for air with hollow puffs out and in. Humping manatees _ a pod of them.

"They're mating," I said. But the girls had probably figured that out. They were 14, after all.

"Can we stay?" asked Jessie.

"Definitely," I said.

They sat on the sea wall, dangling their bare legs against the hot concrete, while I stood beside and began to sweat under Florida's first week of summer sun. Mangroves hemmed us in, but a small sandy beach 4 feet below allowed a clear view of the river.

"How many are there?" I asked.

"At least six," Steph said. "See, there are more over there." She pointed slightly south, where the verdant water churned, then was sliced by a rounded tail notched like a giant lily pad.

A family joined us, blond and tanned, probably coming from a day at the beach. The mother pointed things out for her son, a young man about my girls' age, then she aimed a disposable camera and waited for the next manatee to emerge before clicking the button.

"They're mating," I explained.

She nodded. "We saw them from the bridge, but we thought it was a hurt porpoise."

"Us, too." We both chuckled softly. "It's great you have a camera."

As we talked, our eyes stayed mostly on the water, watching for noses, flippers, backs and bellies. The mammals were tireless in their rolling acrobatics. One male had two white slashes of scars on his back near his tail. We could see them when he swam near the surface, then clearly as he breached to mount his mate. His dark gray body flexed and sprawled, totally exposed. Round and magnificent.

Another family joined us then, a young father and mother with a daughter about 4, African-Americans dressed brightly for a night on the town. The little girl stood nestled within the fold of her mother's arms and stared at the spectacle before us. Her red-and-white polka-dot dress contrasted sweetly with her ebony braids pressed against the fabric.

"We're taking her to see Snooty next week," the mother said. Snooty is Bradenton's captive sea cow and Manatee County's official mascot. "We sure never expected to see this, though. From the road, we thought they were in trouble."

"That's what we all thought," I said.

More slowly came _ a family with a fancy telephoto camera and a basic 3-year-old boy, a middle-aged Indian couple in gauzy garb, a big family with a loud grandma who didn't have her glasses but watched anyway _ and it struck me how diverse we all were, random Americans of many shades connected through a spontaneous moment turned magic. We had looked out a window from a distance, noticed something unusual and thought maybe we could help, taking time to veer off the highway and delay our arrival at whatever destination; our reward was a shared communion with creatures the average person doesn't get to see in the wild, let alone in multitude and multiplying.

"Awesome," the original teenage boy said under his breath, even though we'd been watching for more than 15 minutes. His mother said something to his father, who started to walk away."It's up to you!" she called to his back as he hurried to the car.

I couldn't imagine him leaving this. What could be more important? But he returned 10 minutes later with her new disposable camera, so she could take more shots as proof of our witness _ to commemorate our Sirenian Close Encounter of the Third Kind.

Sometimes the moment is so big you have time to go buy another camera to capture the moment that captured you.

Angela Masterson Jones is a poet who lives in Terra Ceia.