My Son, the Manatee

Is it ever too late to become the caring parent you thought you could be? To find out, one man went in search of his adopted manatee—only to discover the many injustices that humankind has heaped upon these hapless marine mammals. And when Junior is fat, slow, and endangered, family values are nothing more than an easy way to break your heart.

Outside

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   We returned to Blue Spring, still hoping to catch a glimpse of Brutus. It was our last day in Florida, and we had a few things we wanted to tell him.

We paddled out past the mouth of the stream and into the St. Johns. It is a wide river, stained brown with tannin, and it was unlikely we would see anything underwater. It was Sunday, and dozens of boats slowly motored up and down the river. Only a few disobeyed the no-wake rule.

Occasionally, one of us would call out, "Brutus!" and a flock of egrets would take to the sky. Once we startled a 12-foot alligator that was snoozing on the bank and the creature scurried directly toward our canoes. (Alligators, by the way, don't eat manatees; the lummoxes are just too big for their jaws.) Finally, when we'd been bitten by enough mosquitoes and the girls were scanning in all directions for attacking alligators, I stood in the canoe. I had been planning to make one last plea. Perhaps I'd started out as a deadbeat dad, but now I truly cared. I wanted to be there for him, the son I'd never known. But something profoundly different came out of my mouth. "Brutus!" I yelled. "Don't come back! We're not worth it!"

Brutus did come back, though. Two weeks later, Wayne Hartley e-mailed that he had returned. Like all manatees, he needs that warm water on occasion. Brutus has been coming to Blue Spring for at least 30 years and he probably will continue to do so until the day he dies.

I hope I never see him.   

W. Hodding Carter is the author of Westward Whoa (1994) and A Viking Voyage (May 2000).



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