Reefless Madness – Nancy Hayes

Secret aaaagent man–
A tee.
Secret aaaaagent man–
A tee.
They’ve given you some blubber
And taken away your mane.
    –Johnny Estuaries

From his waterfront office, located within the mangroves and womangroves of Kissimmeeyoufool, Florida, Secret Agent Manatee logged into his laptop. A new episode of his favorite whalepodcast, Last Night Spumes Raydio had been posted to Deep Overboard’s website. In this episode, spumeists Flukey Collins, Blubby Eversmann, Brine Sprinkle and Toonah Collins would create shrimprovised flash-poems based on the night’s special theme, “The Past.” Since the listening audience was encouraged to play along, Secret Agent Manatee grabbed a sea pen, a bottle of squid ink, a piece of sandpaper and a glass of Reefsling and awaited instructions.

“In the first of tonight’s three rounds, your task is to write a spume evoking old-timey times–using only future tense verbs–in the form of a tanka, a thirty-one-syllable poem, traditionally written in a single unbroken line,” announced Blubby. “Fellow spumeists, you have five minutes to write your tankas, tanka you very much. Flukey?” 

Flukey jumped in to initiate the show’s verbal countdown: “Ready…Drink…


Secret Agent Manatee blinked his beady black eyes and squinted at the laptop’s monitor. “Blurp? I believe the traditional Late Night Spumes Raydio’s third directive is spume, not blurp.” Secret Agent Manatee chuckled, clicked the recording’s “rewind five seconds” button then hit “Play” to restart the show. Once again, Flukey’s voice could be heard motivating spumeists to write with a “Ready…Drink…


“Blurp? What the blurp’s going on here?” Agent Manatee demanded of his laptop.

“Blurp! Blurp! Blurp!”

repeated the blurper.

Hugh closed his laptop. The blurping continued. “Uh, and a good blurp to you, too?” ventured Hugh, as he glanced around his office, searching for the source of the blurping.

A whisper of a voice strained to introduce herself.

“Hello, Mr. Manatee. It’s me, Cora the Coral. I apologize for startling you. I’m a bit short of stature, you see. Or I guess you don’t. Maybe if I position myself in front of your desk lamp’s light beam I’ll cast a shadow.”

Hugh gazed at the wall behind his desk and managed to detect the teensiest speck of a shadow. “Ah, yes, there you are. How may I be of assistance, little gray speck, er, rather, Cora?”

Cora bellowed,

“I saw your ad in The Daily Tidings in which you state your agency accepts all types of investigative inquiries, no matter how big or small. I’m here to secure your services.”

“Unh hunh. And I assume this will be a small job…?” His voice trailed off. “It’s not that I doubt you have a legitimate concern, but there’s small and then there’s, well…”

Cora shouted,

“Oh my goodness, no! I mentioned the ‘no job too big or too small’ claim in your advertisement, because I’m worried my job will be TOO big. I’m here to file a missing persons’ report.”

Hugh did his best not to sound dismissive. “I’m sorry to hear about your missing mom? Dad? Aunt? But …”

Cora interjected,


“I’m sorry. Which? Your mom, dad or aunt?”

Cora confirmed,

“All three. And that’s in addition to all of my uncles, cousins, grandparents, sisters and brothers. They’ve all disappeared.”

Agent Manatee’s beady black eyes grew to the size of coat buttons.“ How could your whole family have vanished? And why did you and only you escape?”

Cora explained,

“I was visiting relatives at Seas World this past week. When I returned home to the Keys this morning, my entire family was gone.”

Cora sobbed.

“Maybe they’re at the grocery store?” 

“No, we produce our own food. We have no need to go to the grocery store.”

“The laundromat then?” Agent Manatee submitted.

“No. We don’t wear clothes,”

countered Cora. 

Agent Manatee blushed and politely looked away from the shadowy speck on the wall. “All right then. Perhaps they’ve gone to see a movie?”

Cora stated,

“No, we don’t have eyes. Besides, it’s not just my family that’s disappeared. So have friends of my family. And friends of friends of my family. Everyone I know is gone.”

Secret Agent Manatee had to admit a mass disappearance such as this doesn’t just happen. Something wasn’t right. “You’ve convinced me, Cora. Your family and friends of your family and friends of friends of your family did not leave the reef willingly—but why would someone want to abduct the entire colony? Did your family have enemies? Can you think of anyone who’d want to cause your family harm?”

Cora thought.

“I hesitate to point fingers, but Polly the Parrotfish is always hanging around the reef, flashing her giant teeth and smiling in a way I find unsettling. I can’t help wondering if she had something to do with this.”

“Cora, as I said in my ad—a statement I included sincerely–no case is too big or too small for Manatee Investigations. I’m still not sure where this case falls, size-wise, but I’ll take it. My fee is $200 sand dollars a day plus expenses.”

With a wave of a flipper, Agent Manatee bade adieu to Cora then swam out of his office and into the lagoon, from where he navigated his way to Key Largo via canals, rivers and the coastal waters of the Atlantic.

Two days later, when Hugh reached the reef where Cora’s family was last seen, her family was not to be seen; however, Polly, in her clownish turquoise, yellow, pink and purple sequin-like getup was hard not to see. She flamboyantly glided in and out and in and out of the reef. 

Agent Manatee approached the garish wrasse. “Ahem.”

Polly turned toward him. “Yes?”

“Greetings and salutations. My name is Agent Manatee, and I’ve been hired to look into a mysterious matter that took place at this very spot. Not so long ago, there was a coral reef here. It’s gone. Know anything about it?”

Polly sputtered indignantly, “No, I do not.”

“An eyeless witness reported seeing you nibbling on the coral. Care to comment?“

Polly relaxed. “Well, yes, it’s true. I do frequent this reef, but I do not eat the coral. I eat the algae that grows on the coral. If I didn’t, the algae would end up suffocating the poor creatures. I’m their friend. I suggest you talk to the lionfish. I always see him skulking about when I’m at the reef doing good things.”

Agent Manatee thanked Polly for her time then scanned the reef, hoping to catch sight of the lurking lionfish.

Although the lionfish had tucked himself into a rocky crevice, his bright red stripes, frilly fins and spiny mane made him easy to find. “Hey, Leonardo,” Hugh called out. “Have a few minutes to answer some questions?”

Leonardo responded with a scowl.

Agent Manatee pressed ahead. “A family of corals used to live here—lots of families actually—but they’ve disappeared without leaving so much as a forwarding address or canceling their paper. My sources tell me you’re often seen hiding in the shadows, watching the goings-on in a menacing manner.”

Leonardo fluttered his frilly fins and grimaced his grimace-y mouth. “I have no interest in the coral and had nothing to do with their disappearance. I hang around the reef, because that’s where the delectable parrotfish are. I suggest talking to the crown-of-thorns starfish. It arrived from the land down under a mere few days ago, and now the corals are gone. Coincidence? Methinks not. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I see that dish of a parrotfish Polly flitting about the reef when she could be dancing upon my taste buds.”

Armed with a new lead, Agent Manatee resumed his investigative exploits, searching the ocean floor until he noticed the brilliant purple crown-of-thorns starfish settled on a rock. He propelled his way to her and repeated his spiel.

Regina flailed nine of her 17 arms. “It’s true, it’s true. I love coral. They’re delicious, mate. Yet, while I routinely dine on corals on the Great Barrier Reef back home, I haven’t had a thing to eat since arriving from Australia. The colony, much to my dismay and grumbly tummy, was gone when I got here.”

Secret Agent Manatee sighed in frustration. His list of likely suspects had emptied faster than a public swimming pool after the alligators arrived. Feeling at sea, he allowed himself to lie back on a continental shelf and just go with the flow for a minute or two. “Aaah, I have to say, this is nice. And maybe the warm water will fire up the ol’ neurons.”

Hugh sprang up in alarm. “Wait a minute. Warm water? The coastal waters aren’t supposed to be warm!” 

“Psst,” said a voice alluringly.

“Uh, yes?”

“One word. I just want to say one word to you. Just one word,” confided the octopus who oozed out from under a rock.


The octopus asked, “Are you listening?”

Secret Agent Manatee assured him, “Yes, yes, I am.”

The octopus declared, “Plastics.”

“Exactly how do you mean?” asked Hugh.

“There’s a grave future in plastics. Think about it, will you?”

Mr. Quagmire disappeared in a flash of black ink.

Agent Manatee remained but did as he was prompted. He thought about it. He thought about it as he floated in the warm coastal waters of the Atlantic; he thought about it as he made his way back to his lagoon.

Twelve hours later, Agent Manatee paused his aquatic journey to take a breather in a coastal canal. He’d never before taken the time to notice his surroundings while traveling. The canal was filled with discarded grocery bags, water bottles, sunscreen tubes, drinking straws and abandoned fishing nets.


Six weeks later, Secret Agent Manatee stood on a stage in front of city hall. He bowed his head to allow the mayor to slip a medal of distinguished honor around his neck. The mayor approached the dais and proclaimed, “Fellow citizens, we gather today to thank a local hero whose accomplishments benefit not only those of us in Kissimmeeyoufool, but all Floridians, Americans, Earthlings and, conceivably, the entire universe. When Secret Agent Manatee identified the killer of the coral colony he also brought attention to our destructive ways and why we need to change in order to save the Florida Reef, ourselves, our children and our children’s children.” 

A crowd of local citizens, environmental dignitaries from across the world and little Cora cheered, while a few attending disgruntled polluters could be heard to grumble, “Oh, the Hugh Manatee! If it hadn’t been for that meddling sea cow, we could still be using the ocean as our personal fee-free dumping ground.”

After the last piece of bio-degradable confetti was thrown, Cora approached Hugh.

“Please know I appreciate everything you’ve done, Mr. Manatee, I really do. And yet..I still miss my family and wish they could be here to celebrate your triumph.”

Hugh grinned. “Our story’s not over yet, Cora. My investigation turned up another surprise—one I’m pretty sure will put a smile on that mouthless face of yours. Follow me.”

Hugh led Cora to what appeared to be an underwater laundry service. Or maybe a communications station or a farm of some sort. Structures resembling clotheslines, TV antennas and PVC pipes supporting agricultural plantings dotted the ocean floor. 

“What is this place?”

asked Cora.

“It’s a coral nursery,” answered Hugh. “Scientists, environmental organizations and volunteers have banded together to nurse reefs back to health by taking fragments of coral from local reefs and raising them in labs and nurseries until they’re strong enough to be transplanted onto reefs.” 

Cora admired the work but couldn’t help pointing out,

“But it doesn’t bring back my family.”

“Au contraire, little one,” Hugh proclaimed. “Workers in the reef nurseries have the ability to ‘re-skin’ a dead, er, expired, coral skeleton with living tissue from native coral strains, not only rendering the new corals resilient to the impacts of disease, warming waters and ocean acidification but also allowing for corals you thought you’d never see again to rise from the ashes, so to speak.”

Hugh pointed a flipper at the nursery room located nearest to Cora. “Look! There’s your infant mom, baby dad and wee auntie. Even grandpapa, Corrigan is being revived.”

Cora gasped.

“Grandpapa! Oh, my goodness. I can’t believe you’re back, grandpapa! Oh, grandpapa! Oh..…grandpapa.”

Secret Agent Manatee winced. “Oh, indeed. Looks like someone’s ready for a diatom change.”

Nancy Hayes is the mother of a Powell’s Bookstore bookseller.

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