Monday, February 11, 2008

Manatee Mania

Manatees congregating in warmer shallow water (photo from Manatees, a Tribute)

Tail Fin Next to My Kayak
Manatee Coming Up for Air with Nostrils Surfacing

A Pair of Docile Manatees (photo from Manatees, a Tribute)

What do they call a group of manatees? School, herd, pod? You'd be surprised how many biologists I asked who didn't know. Even the woman who answered the phone at the Manatee Education Center didn't know, but I liked the way she laughed each time she tried a different noun. You know how you can sometimes tell if you have the right word by sounding it out? That's what she was doing on the phone ...."a school of manatee, a herd of manatee, a pod of manatee." I explained I was curious because I ended up floating on top of several of them in shallow water and I wanted to tell this story in an educated manner. She never figured it out but continued to amuse herself with "flock.....clan....litter."

To move on with the story, I'll explain how I became so intimate with manatees, and I promise it won't sound too educated. You see, I was so delighted to finally find these unobtrusive ancient animals in the tanin-stained water of the Indian River Lagoon here in Florida, that I released my kayak paddle for a couple of minutes in favor of my binoculars and digital camera. The wind did fast work of putting my lame kayak in the center of the school-herd-pod of manatees. I could feel the manatees pushing against the bottom of my kayak. They encircled me, or somehow my kayak drifted into the center of their corral. I could have scratched their bulging backsides, bedecked with algae and barnacles. I swear their girths were greater than my 32 inch wide kayak. The school-herd-pod was so concentrated that there was not enough free water to set my paddle and sweep myself out of the way.

I held my breath knowing I could soon be taking a well-deserved swim. I wasn't too worried because I knew they wouldn't bite me; they don't have any teeth except molars and they are herbivores. That means vegetarian, thank you. Manatees are tame and trusting: not territorial. They don't even fight over mates, so what are they going to do with me? (Squish me and make muck?)
Manatees can stay underwater about 20 minutes but they usually come to the surface for air more often than that. I was surrounded by so many, that every few seconds I would hear a woosh of exhaled air and if I could turn my torso limberly in the right direction, I could see the nostrils flare on the tip of a surfaced bulbous snout within a paddle's length from me. Then the manatee would submerge, the lungs nurished and the nostrils closing, enabling feeding underwater.
They held me in suspense tottering on their backsides, while they sized up my underside. Would my blimpy 8 foot Hobie kayak resemble them enough in the dark water to adopt me until they slowly move laterally with their front flippers to a new grazing ground? Not a chance. Once one of these 1/2 ton marine mammals determined I wasn't part of the school-herd-pod, they all decided to take leave. This parting was not in their normal serene style of locomotion, but a grand, turbulent exit. I rocked in a sea of white water, waves pouring over the sides of my kayak as their paddle shaped tails lifted and propelled them away from my kayak.

These ancient, vanishing, mermaid-like animals gave me what a I deserved, a wet body and soggy pride, but they did not dump me. I think my Hobie is shaped too much like them; a roly-poly bouyant-neutral vessel that just settled calmly upright. Thank you again.

So is it a school, a herd or a pod of manatees that mania-teased me and my kayak? If I tell you that their distant cousins are elephants, would that help? Need another hint? Try sounding it out loud: "Cheryl, the nerd, drifted into a ______of manatees."

1 comment:

Debby said...

Cheryl, it sounds like a mound of manatees!