How drunk and lonely must seamen of yore have been to confuse manatees for mermaids? I suppose being out at sea for months on end, high with scurvy and desperate for female accompaniment would make even the dread pirate Bloodbeard look downright feminine. But the manatee, an animal affectionately known as the sea cow, does not look like Daryl Hannah at all to me.
Manatees are probably nature’s most gentle creatures. So perhaps the old mariners weren’t as superficial as I am. They were searching for a nurturing mermaid, not necessarily a shapely one. And I for one am always excited to see the big gray marshmallow of a marine animal. As a child this seemed to be a regular event, as an adult witnessing one seems a rare occurrence.
Just the other day though I got lucky. Walking through South Pointe Park in Miami Beach along the bay one was lying on the sea floor. The water was still and clear and a crowd gathered to watch as every few minutes the manatee rose to the surface to breathe in some air.
The manatee brings people together. Their presence alone brings smiles to anyone’s face and seem like a monumental enough event so that when someone asks you, “What did you do today?” and you answer “I saw a manatee.” It kind of blows the story they wanted to tell you of their day into the realm of insignificance.
But manatees aren’t all sunshine and rainbows to me. They also bring back traumatic memories. Public service announcements that played during cartoons in the eighties on Miami local television stations warned you to watch out for manatees when you were on your boat. Apparently there was an epidemic of boat propellers mutilating the backs of swimming manatees. But were Scooby Doo episodes the right time to advertise this important message? As a six year old I did not have the keys to a motor boat, but I did have a traumatized subconscious littered with images of manatee scar tissue floating to the surface.