CLEARWATER — It was the perfect April Fool's Day prank for the age of the hashtag.
Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, the agency that markets the Pinellas beaches to the world, sent out a news release Tuesday at 6 a.m. claiming that "officials have confirmed the sighting of a rare marine mammal off the coast of St. Pete/Clearwater last week."
The creature was a "combination dolphin/manatee."
Scientists had believed the "manaphin" to be "long-extinct."
Long-extinct perhaps, but not unprepared. The mammal already had its own website: manaphin.com.
Some folks actually fell for it. An Orlando shock jock. A reporter from Chicago.
Tourism officials were playing more than just a prank.
Their job is to market the sun and sand of the Pinellas beaches 365 days a year — and that includes April Fool's Day.
"This is marketing, this is what we do," said David Downing, deputy director of the Pinellas tourism agency. "It's just another kind of marketing to keep the destination front and center in the minds of potential visitors — and locals with a sense of humor."
That's why manaphin.com includes links to Visit St. Pete-Clearwater's website. While the half-manatee, half-dolphin creature is clearly Photoshopped, the images of clear blue water and artificial reefs off the Pinellas coastline did not need to be faked.
Even the language used on the website was designed to evoke the gentle waters off Pinellas' beaches:
"Smaller than a manatee but larger than a regular bottle nosed dolphin, the Manaphin is an aquatic herbivore known for its playful personality and a penchant for exceptionally clear water."
But officials also took care to avoid creating a "sea monster."
The Daily Telegraph, a London newspaper, listed it as one of the top April Fool's Day pranks from the travel industry. ABC News called it one of the best business hoaxes of the day.
Word got around on Tuesday, especially on Twitter, where people could get in on the joke using the hashtags #manaphin and #savethemanaphin.
The Web addresses cost just $18 (they bought manafin.com, too, just in case.) The tourism agency bought it last year, but Downing said they didn't have time to execute the idea. But they were ready this year.
One of the photos on the page is of an actual manatee beneath the waters. They got an ad agency to create a Charles Darwin-like sketch of the ancient creature. And there's even a joke about the Internet: the video of the "manaphin" is actually a video of a loading symbol that circles endlessly.
There's even a fake "manafan" T-shirt for sale on the website.
There are no plans to sell real ones — not yet anyway.
Downing laughed about the T-shirt. "That was great," he said.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Follow him on Twitter @jthalji.