MAY HAVE BEEN MERMAIDS
Christopher Columbus gets credit for the first written record of manatees in North America, ones he saw near the Dominican Republic in 1492. West Indian manatees, also called Florida manatees, are resident in peninsular Florida and occur in the Caribbean and along the Gulf coast to Mexico. During summer, some wander as far north as the Carolinas.
This group of solely aquatic mammals, known scientifically as the Sirenia, is unrelated to whales and dolphins. The scientific name comes from the sirens, the mythical sea nymphs who lured lovesick sailors to watery graves, because some historians believe that sailors reporting mermaid sightings actually saw manatees. Indeed, they have no hind legs, and they do have a flipper-like tail vaguely resembling a mermaid's. But they also have a blimp-shaped body and a pair of paddles for front legs. A sailor would have to have been at sea for a long time to mistake a "sea cow" for anything resembling a beautiful woman with long tresses.
Manatees are so ugly they are cute, with a piglike face, small, widely set eyes, and a blubbery upper lip. Two-inch-thick skin is covered with sparse, bristly hair. An average adult is almost 10 feet long. Really big ones can be over 12 feet and weigh more than half a ton. One way manatees communicate is to touch muzzles, and people who have had the good fortune to swim with these gentle ocean giants discover that manatees will playfully nibble a swimmer with their rubbery lips.
Female manatees normally give birth to a single young that looks like a miniature adult and weighs 60 pounds. Like other marine mammals, which have no gills and must breathe air, a mother manatee's first job is to make sure the baby starts breathing properly. Manatees can remain submerged for 5 to 10 minutes, so the newborn is taught to surface and sink in a rhythmic pattern. Carrying the baby on her back, the mother rises for a breath and then sinks, until the baby learns to breathe alone. The young remain with their mother for about two years. Nourishment during the first few months comes mostly from a diet of mother's milk.
Manatees, which are not restricted to saltwater, spend much of their life wandering up rivers. In winter they remain in areas where temperatures stay warm. Pneumonia and other illnesses following cold spells are commonly reported natural causes of death. Manatees are strict vegetarians and, despite their size, are harmless to other animals, including humans. No animals routinely prey on manatees so, not surprisingly, humans pose the greatest threat to their survival. These benign, nonaggressive leviathans lack adequate defense against intentional or accidental harm.
Among the biggest human threats to manatees are motorboat propellers, which injure many manatees every year. Indeed, most of Florida's manatees are believed to have scars from boat injuries. Unfortunately, these curious creatures do not avoid--and are sometimes even attracted to--boats. Manatees have been a federally endangered species since 1967. Therefore, malicious behavior toward manatees is seriously condemned by wildlife officials. Although manatees are still occasionally shot "for sport" by a certain class of individuals, most Floridians, as well as anyone else familiar with the species, abhor such acts because manatees are gentle, inoffensive animals. An 1893 law to protect Florida manatees indicates that this docile marine mammal's pleasant nature was appreciated more than a century ago.
Ironically, a problem today stems from people's interest in manatees. Tourists seek them out to swim with or feed. These big, gentle beasts will solicit a back or belly rub, something they seem to enjoy immensely. But too many swimmers can disrupt their feeding or drive them from their resting places. In fact, swimming with manatees is illegal because of their status as an endangered animal.
problem is slow-moving manatees and fast-moving pleasure boats sharing
the same coastal waters. Many boat operators want no restrictions on where
or how fast they travel. Perhaps the solution lies in establishing a program
to allow boat drivers to swim with manatees. Surely, anyone who has swum
with a manatee would be interested in protecting these marvelous creatures,
even if that meant restrictions on certain boating activities.