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

By the next morning, the manatees had returned. Putting down a mutinous clamor to abandon Blue Spring and head over to the Gulf Coast to the mermaid-and-manatee show at Weeki Wachee Springs, Russell and I accompanied park ranger Wayne Hartley on his daily head count. Our sullen families watched the manatees from the boardwalk as we made the rounds in a pair of canoes. Hartley said that Brutus returns to Blue Spring every year, as my brochure had claimed, but he only stays for a few days at a time and then disappears for weeks. "It's got to be really cold to bring old Brutus in," he said. At 8:30 a.m. the air temperature was a cool 50 degrees, so maybe Brutus had turned up.

A big man but no manatee contender, Hartley has been monitoring the annual Blue Spring winter retreat for 19 years. One hundred and thirty-one manatees had come up to Blue Spring this season, and he knew nearly all of them by name. We paddled just a few yards past the no-boat zone (PVC piping across the mouth of the spring) and hovered over a bunch of manatees. It was extremely underwhelming. They looked like sunken fat cactuses, as a result of sporadic bristly hairs dotting their bulbous backs. Eventually, one slowly rose to the surface, inches from our boat, revealing its stoppered snout, making me suddenly giddy. It was so close; it might be Brutus. The nose unplugged and a reverberating exhalation, like the spouting of a small whale, echoed across the still waters. Its breath smelled a bit like a deflating tire, only mustier.

"Brutus?" I asked.

"No, that's...Phyllis."

Another and another and another rose around us. Soon there were dozens of exhaling cactuses surrounding our canoes. I hadn't expected it to be like this, great clumps of them floating beneath us, conserving their energy, as we paddled overhead. One mother had not only her one-year-old calf close to her side, but also a pair of older adoptees vying for nourishment.

Hartley began a monologue of greetings that didn't stop until we were back on shore two hours later. "Glad to see you, Floyd. There you are, Jax. No, you're not Jax. Wait, yeah you are, tail buried in sand." Half of Jax's tail is missing, perhaps from a run-in with fishing line. Next to boating accidents, entanglement is the single biggest cause of injuries.

"There's Georgia," Hartley continued, taking pictures and recording distinguishing marks while he talked. I half-expected him to give each manatee a friendly slap across the back, he reminded me so much of a local politician courting his constituents. "This is Georgia's third year back. Great success story. Picked up at 63 pounds. Six years at Sea World, released here." Georgia looked to be at least 1,500 pounds, if not more. "Problem is that Georgia likes people too much. She's even tried to climb steps out of the run to follow someone. She's taught her calf Peaches to like people, too." He swept his paddle over the water, indicating the whole lot. "The brats, I could beat them all," he said with affection.

Peaches, by the way, is a boy. You can tell by the proximity of the genitalia opening to the umbilical scar and anus. Males' are closer to the umbilical scar, females' to the anus. Of course, a manatee must roll on its back for you to see this.

One manatee took a shine to me and wouldn't leave my end of the canoe, nuzzling up to me and trying to touch my hand. "Oh, that's Unknown 11," Hartley said, glancing over his shoulder, noticing a tail scar. Unable to resist, I touched its head. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this was OK because the manatee approached me, but the state park did not condone such behavior. Unknown 11's skin was rougher than I thought it would be, almost like sandpaper. It came back for more—clearly very fond of me. Hartley said this behavior wasn't unusual. "The more they like hanging around people, the more they hang around boats, and thus the more they get hit," he cautioned. I asked if Brutus is like this. Hartley laughed. "Naw," he said. "Brutus is a real manatee. He moves away from the canoe, if he is awake. He's very calm, laid back, though."

We saw 72 manatees but no Brutus.

That night during dinner at Olive Garden (about the only place in town that serves salad), I got more grief, not only for keeping us in central Florida but seemingly also for the whole manatee situation.

"I wish they didn't give the manatees names," Sandi said. "What's with calling him Brutus? Or Louie? It anthropomorphizes them. It's kind of weird, don't you think? It makes you want to pet them."

Ashamed, I didn't mention touching Unknown 11.