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.

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
Blue Spring State Park is 30 miles northeast of Orlando, and as we made our way south from our home in Maine, my wife, Lisa, and I tried to prep our kids about Brutus and his friends. Driving down McDonald's-Exxon-Comfort Inn-Jiffy Lube Lane in Orange City, toward the turnoff for the park, Lisa explained that Brutus, like most manatees, could be identified by his unique pattern of propeller scars.

"Why do the boats cut Brutus?" asked Eliza, who's four. Because the boats go too fast in shallow water, we answered.

Then Anabel, her twin, chimed in. "Is Brutus better?" Yes, yes, we said. Helen, our two-and-a-half-year-old, held her own counsel, staring mutely at her manatee book.

"But the boats might cut his back again, huh?" Eliza continued. Luckily we arrived at the spring before we had to answer.

"Bruuuuutus!" the girls yelled, running to the boardwalk that hugged the shore. "Where are you, Brutus?"A lush hammock of live oak and wax myrtle engulfed the bank, making it nearly impossible to see the 50-foot-wide spring. The girls pried their way past dozens of baffled tourists staring blankly down from the boardwalk at the vividly clear water, but all they could see were a few fat catfish and a small school of tilapia. Brutus, along with all the other manatees, was nowhere in sight. The park allows visitors to swim in the upper reaches of the spring run each day—just not near the manatees—and half a dozen people were already splashing around the narrow waterway. Human-manatee interaction wasn't a problem because, understandably, the manatees had left. Park rules state that were one to reappear, everyone would have to hop out of the water. But the manatees usually just leave sooner on their afternoon foraging runs into the 60-degree (or colder) river, traveling perhaps dozens of miles for food and, with any luck, a shallow pocket of warm water. Most get cold stress in water below 68 degrees; they develop internal infections and cankerlike sores, similar to frostbite, on their extremities, which often lead to death. So the park tried to prohibit swimming but bowed to legislative pressure when swimmers and divers complained.

We waited around, hoping against hope that Brutus might show. But hours passed, and finally, dejected, we set up our tent in an RV site at the park. Thirty miles northeast of Orlando might be a great place for manatees, but it's a little less so for humans. The area's sprawling development is inescapable and frightening, and during our entire stay, beeping, churning construction equipment serenaded us wherever we went. Florida has the country's fastest-growing population, and the 2,192-acre park made a poor beachhead in the fight to preserve some semblance of tranquility.

That afternoon, our friends Russell Kaye, Sandi Phipps, and their five-year-old daughter, Lucy, joined us at our campsite. Russell and Sandi had come to photograph the manatees. With all three suffering from strep throat, they were no boost to our sagging morale. Our girls were pouring topsoil over each other when my wife began grousing that the tourists were ugly; Blue Spring gets up to 2,000 visitors a day because of the manatees. "They're a blight on this beautiful natural setting," Lisa announced.

"What makes us so beautiful?" I asked, still worried about Brutus. A seemingly befuddled box turtle walked by.

"We're not," Lisa replied. "We're a blight too. We should all commit mass suicide."

"Not until I see Brutus," I said.