The Atlantic Ocean, on this gray day just North of Fort Lauderdale, was rather murky with slightly higher than average surf. There was not an abundance of people in the water as this was not an ideal day for a beach vacation. We then caught notice of a few people swimming a fair ways out who seamed rather intent about something at their location. Not wanting to miss the excitement, we grabbed our masks, fins, snorkels, and jumped in to see what’s up. After going for some time in perhaps six feet of visibility, I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about when the way in front of me turned black. I had come up to the side of a manatee. It looked as large as a whale, but I have learned how everything gets bigger and more menacing when you get up close and personal, especially when you can’t quite see it well. It turns out that there were about four or five of them, slowly following each other in a large circle. Their movement seemed effortless and lazy, even though their pace was quite brisk by human standards. They did not seem to care one bit about my presence. When one came close I reached out and touched it. It was soft underneath but the skin was rather rough, much like a cow’s tongue, not that I’ve ever reached out and touched a cow’s tongue before. One was offered to me by a friend from Thailand on a plate once but that didn’t make me want to touch it any more than if it had still been attached to the cow.
All this while, I was wondering if I should be scared. I was, but just wondering if I should be. I kept thinking to myself ‘I’ve never read the headlines “Man Mauled To Death By Manatee”‘. Then it occurred to me… I’ve never read a Florida newspaper. Maybe those stories are all over Florida newspapers. Damn, there was even a free one at the hotel and I just walked right on past it.
About the time I decided to head back to shore, one came by me, gave a little extra stroke with it’s big horizontal tail and was out of sight.
Upon walking up onto the beach, I was greeted by man who would have made an excellent drill sergeant. Spit was flying from his face as he was excitedly explaining how much worse my life was about to become. I had no idea that someone could get in so much trouble swimming in the ocean at a public beach. He wasn’t wearing any uniform, or even being terribly coherent in his explanation of my transgressions, but I felt like I might be guilty enough of something to give him a good listening to, complete with lots of “yes sirs” and “no sirs”. It did cross my mind that there were others out in the water with me. Now I don’t have much experience with law enforcement but perhaps it’s always best to make an example of the scrawny guy. After calming down some, he pulled out a clipboard and started filling out a very official looking form, complete with all my vital statistics and in triplicate.
Without any explanation, freedom arrived again the instant he handed me my copy. I nervously read it over and was relieved to see in the upper corner, the printed words “Official Warning”. In the box after “Violation” was written “Molesting Manatee”. Does this mean that I have to register with any zoo within five miles of my home? Do I need a chaperone when I go there?
Some sad news about my friends just now. Following is today’s article from NPR: (of course they don’t think of me as a friend, just some fellow creature they accepted as background)
STUART, Fla. — More manatees have died already this year than in any other year in Florida’s recorded history, primarily from starvation due to the loss of seagrass beds, state officials said.
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission reported that 841 manatee deaths were recorded between Jan. 1 and July 2, breaking the previous record of 830 that died in 2013 because of an outbreak of toxic red tide.
The TCPalm website reports that more than half the deaths have died in the Indian River Lagoon and its surrounding areas in Volusia, Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties. The overwhelming majority of deaths have been in Brevard, where 312 manatees have perished.
Some biologists believe water pollution is killing the seagrass beds in the area.
“Unprecedented manatee mortality due to starvation was documented on the Atlantic coast this past winter and spring,” Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute wrote as it announced the record Friday. “Most deaths occurred during the colder months when manatees migrated to and through the Indian River Lagoon, where the majority of seagrass has died off.”
Boat strikes are also a major cause of manatee deaths, killing at least 63 this year.
The manatee was once classified as endangered by the federal government, but it was reclassified as threatened in 2017. Environmentalists are asking that the animal again be considered endangered.
The federal government says approximately 6,300 manatees live in Florida waters, up from about 1,300 in the early 1990s