MAY HAVE BEEN MERMAIDS
by Whit Gibbons
March 6, 2005
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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