Strange as it may seem, legend has it that in ancient times, sailors would mistake manatees for mermaids.
Perhaps the old salts had just been out to sea too long, or maybe they were viewing the wide, flat, paddle tails from a distance. It's safe to say that upon closer inspection, the "mermaids" weren't quite the eye candy the guys may have wished for.
The marine mammals can weigh 1,000 pounds or more, are bald and gray, and sprout bristly whiskers. They make a lot of noise when they eat, too.
But they are sweet and gentle, as you may see for yourself on Saturday when Tarpon Springs presents the second annual "Manatee Celebration Day: Protecting the Springs."
Activities take place between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. in the Heritage Museum and surrounding Craig Park on Spring Bayou, where a large group of manatees winter.
"This is an opportunity to see manatees up close and see how gentle and cute they are," said Gen Haley, event organizer and the city's marketing and communications coordinator. "They may not be as exciting as dolphins, but they are adorable and charming."
They are also a very vulnerable bunch, many succumbing to cold weather stress or strikes from boat propellers. Last year saw a record-breaking 767 manatee deaths, most due to the unseasonably cold weather, as documented by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
Haley began her career as a marine mammal researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She works inside the Heritage Museum and continually sees how fascinated people are with the hefty herbivores, so she launched the inaugural event last year.
The focus of this year's celebration will be on protecting the manatee and its habitat, said Haley. There will be plenty of manatee merriment with information, lectures, films, children's activities and kayak demonstrations. Manny the Manatee, the landlubbing version, will mingle in the crowds.
• David DeWitt, a geologist with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, discussing how to protect Florida's springs.
• Marine mammalogist Brandon Bassett of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute will delve into manatee biology and history with the aid of slides and manatee skeletons.
Don't forget to stop by the Manatee Gift Shop inside the Heritage Museum, where puzzles, books, jewelry and more may be purchased.
"We had a great response and lots of positive feedback about last year's celebration," Haley said. "We hope people will come out, learn how to protect manatees and have a great time."