Manatee or Myth

See sea cows by the sea shore – sometimes.

Robert Meganck

Manatee or Myth – Feature

Everyone knows that to see manatees, you go to Florida. But sometimes, manatees—in this part of the world, they’re the West Indian subspecies—come to Virginia. In fact, in October 2009, a fisherman photographed one gliding along in the James just downriver from Richmond, under the I-95 bridge.

Manatees may appear off the Virginia coast now and then from one summer to the next. One famous example, Chessie, was named for the Chesapeake Bay, where he was first spotted in July 1994. Because manatees can’t tolerate temperatures cooler than 68 degrees for long, when September came, he was rescued and then released near Cape Canaveral, Fla., where scientists attached a radio tag to him. Summer 1995 found the peripatetic Chessie again in the Chesapeake, and he was tracked all the way to Rhode Island before returning to Florida on his own. He later lost his tag, got retagged and lost that tag as well, but he’s been seen in Virginia at least once since, in 2001. He’s spawned a website, a book (Chessie the Meandering Manatee) and even a touring puppet show (The Amazing Adventures of Chessie the Manatee).

Manatee sightings have always caused a stir, back to sea-mad sailors arriving in the New World, who on first seeing manatees thought they were mermaids. Christopher Columbus, in 1493, saw three “mermaids” near the Dominican Republic and described them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Well. Manatees, of the order Sirenia—remember the spellbinding Sirens, of Greek mythology?—are buxom. But these mammals more resemble hefty old men (with tails): bewhiskered, jowly, slope-shouldered and covered with not hair so much as hairs—like slow-moving, 10-foot, half-ton gents who’ve left their dentures by the bathroom sink.

Manatees, in fact, have no front teeth, only cheekteeth and fewer than a dozen at a time. Molars erupt in the back of the jaw and move forward, wearing down until they fall out and are replaced in succession. This conveyor belt-like arrangement—similar to the dentition of the manatee’s closest relative, the elephant (yes, really)—is ideally suited to Trichechus manatus’ solely herbivorous diet. They eat sea grasses and vegetation that grow in the shallow waters they frequent, both saltwater and fresh, consuming up to 10 to 15 percent of their weight a day.

Knowing this wouldn’t have made Andrea Lopiano feel much better the day a manatee tipped her out of her kayak two years ago. The VCU student was vacationing with her family near Sanibel Island in Florida, and the kayak guides had urged quiet as their group paddled through a manatee nursery area—manatees had been known to surface and chuff warnings at boaters. Lopiano got more than that from one manatee mama: “She breathed at me, and then she just reached over and bumped my kayak with her nose!” If that manatee wanted quiet, she got quite the opposite result as Lopiano pitched into the water, screaming.

The more typical outcome of manatee-boat encounters is a widely reported, sad story. In fact, boats are the primary cause of death among the gravely endangered species, and scarring patterns on survivors are scientists’ primary method for identifying individuals (including Chessie). Some manatees have as many as 50 scars. Why don’t they just get out of the way of boats and jet skis? Not because they are stupid—a recent study shows that manatees are, simply, hard of hearing: The sound frequencies typical of boats and jet skis do not register until it is too late. Manatees cruise along at three to five miles an hour a couple of feet below the water’s surface, surfacing every few minutes to breathe. They’re perfectly adapted for their slow lifestyle. They’re not adapted for the powerboat.

In early 2010, the manatee population numbered around 5,000, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife—but the winter’s bitter cold killed off about 10 percent of them. Now there is the Deep Water Horizon spill and all its unknowns. Near Virginia Living’s press time, a CNN report detailed plans for an unprecedented large-scale rescue of manatees, should the need arise.

Chessie? You out there?

christine ennulat
Virginia Living’s Associate Editor
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