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

Brutus didn't show up the next day, either. The weather had turned warm, with temperatures in the 70s and 80s during the day and only the low 50s at night. Weighing roughly a ton, Brutus, along with most of the other manatees, had little need for Blue Spring. So Russell and I headed over to Melbourne, on the Atlantic Coast, to watch a manatee recovery, which is how I ended up on a dock baby-sitting a dead manatee while Russell went off to meet the state marine biologist. Not surprisingly, our families opted to drive to Weeki Wachee.

About a half-hour after the patrol officer left me and my deceased charge, Russell and Ann Spellman, a redheaded biologist for the state-run Florida Marine Research Institute, pulled up towing her manatee rescue/recovery trailer. We dragged the corpse out of the water and loaded it in back of the trailer. All recovered manatees are given a necropsy to determine age and cause of death, and Spellman decided to do the postmortem right in the parking lot behind her office. The nearest pathology lab was three hours away, and she had to hurry to a meeting where she would be told that her already-meager budget was being cut.

"The first thing I like to do is cut the head off to get it out of the way," Spellman explained, as scores of flies swarmed around her and the manatee. She was squatting inside the trailer, which had a slick fiberglass coating so it could be easily hosed out. A pervasive stench clung to anything within range. Apparently breathing through her nose as well as her mouth, Spellman sliced through two layers of fat and muscle. Two more quick strokes of her poultry knife ("It has a good long handle," she said) and the young male's head was severed from its spine. The head slid a few inches on its own fluids and stared out in understandable disgust. "At least he's not a slimer," she said.

Pointing out puffy, white sores on the animal's flippers, tail, and head, Spellman theorized that it had died of cold stress. Barnacles clung to what was left of the manatee's skin, but there were no signs of recent boat scars.

She sliced through half a foot of flesh and found swollen lymph glands and other signs of infection that supported her initial evaluation. And seeing the manatee cut up, it no longer seemed so surprising that these animals cannot handle what seems like relatively warm water. Although there might be a foot of meat between skin and internal organs, there is shockingly little insulation. The amount of fat this creature had, less than an inch in thickness, would make a seal die of laughter. Russell, for example, has plenty more fat than a manatee.

As Spellman studied the carcass more closely, though, she began noticing odd things—a blood-red liver that should be brown, a collapsed left lung, two ribs out of place. She turned the animal on its side. An ugly white scar that we hadn't seen earlier stretched a foot across its back. "Boat," she said and then started digging around the ribs. Turned out there were six fractured ribs from the impact. Judging from its size, Spellman guessed the manatee to be a two-year-old that had perhaps still been nursing.

"I love animals, but it's like I'm a fireman," she said. "You don't see a fireman bawling his eyes out at the scene. You bawl your eyes out watching a stupid schmucky movie."

Spellman cleaned up the mess, stored the head to be sent off to a bio lab (where its exact age could be determined by growth rings in the ear bones), hauled the carcass to the local landfill, and headed off to her budget meeting. Since it was still extremely hot out and Brutus was nowhere to be found (I had called Hartley to check), Russell and I rushed across-state to catch the Weeki Wachee mermaid show. The girls had already seen the morning performance.

"They've got a summer mermaid camp," my wife gushed. "Their makeup stays on even when they're underwater. You should see how they hold their breath."

"Do they look anything like manatees?" I asked, refraining from pointing out that Brutus can hold his breath for up to 16 minutes. The manatees' order is called Sirenia and has long been associated with the mythical mermaids, as Lisa had reminded me earlier.

"No," she continued, her face flushed, "but to become a mermaid all I'd have to do is be able to hold my breath for two and a half minutes underwater while changing costumes... Did I tell you Elvis was here?"

The show, a musical rendition of The Little Mermaid, was mesmerizing. How did they get that makeup to stay on? One of the mermaids slid right past the underwater window cut into one side of the spring's deep cavern, but I definitely could not see how the mermaid/manatee myth ever started. Christopher Columbus, the first historical source for it, wrote that the mermaids he'd seen were not as handsome as artists had portrayed them. What an idiot! These mermaids looked nothing like manatees. To begin with, manatees' breasts are found under their front flippers and that certainly wasn't the case with the Weeki Wachee mermaids. And there weren't even any manatees around that day. "Those girls are so cute," the woman behind us said at the finale.

No one could say that about a manatee.