Not as pretty as they are depicted.
— Christopher Columbus, on coming upon what he thought were mermaids but turned out to be manatees.
I beg to differ.
Of all the strange and interesting things that make up Florida, naturewise — and they are legion, from ingeniously constructed bugs to a seemingly infinite variety of shorebirds, lizards and snakes — one of the best has to be the manatee.
Gray as elephants and stoutly rounded, they glide through rivers and bays looking for grasses to munch and warm waters in winter. With their whiskery faces and massive bulk, their paddle tails and comical nostrils that surface before they make like submarines again, there's nothing like them. When Florida gets too ugly, too overdeveloped, too crowded, if you are lucky, you see a manatee out there somewhere.
Sobering fact: Of Florida's population of about 4,800 sea cows, 80 to 90 percent have distinct, visible patterns of boat propeller scars that mark their hides. Some have been hit more than a dozen times. Scientists use those scars to identify them and distinguish one from another.
Also sobering: In recent years, manatee deaths jumped alarmingly — from 429 in 2009 to 766 a year later to last year's record high of 829.
So naturally, the solution is:
Bump manatees from endangered down to the less protective "threatened" — a move the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering in a review of the manatee's status.
A little history: Threatened by pollution, boats and loss of habitat — basically, by us — manatees made the first endangered species list in 1967, paving the way for commonsense protections like no-wake zones and sanctuaries.
Some with an eye toward development — and some who believe our Constitution includes every American's right to drive a boat as fast as he likes, no matter where he is — have not always liked this.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian property rights group that represents Save Crystal River Inc., is petitioning for the pending downgrade. "It's a matter of principle," says attorney Christina Martin, "in that the government should follow the law."
But we can see those numbers can't be good for manatees. And we get what they mean to Florida.
When I call the Save the Manatee Club — started by former Gov. Bob Graham and singer Jimmy Buffet — and am put on hold, the recorded voice speaking earnestly on the manatee's behalf is actor Alec Baldwin.
"Manatees need all the help they can get," Pat Rose says when I remark on this. Aquatic biologist and executive director of the club, he says he believes in downlisting when it's scientifically warranted.
Not here, not now.
"They are at risk," he says. "And the risk is going to get greater."
You get a say. The FWS is taking public comments online on the manatee's status at fws.gov/northflorida/manatee/manatees.htm until Sept. 2. Spokesman Chuck Underwood says they expect thousands to weigh in. A decision could come early next year.
Martin, attorney for the petitioner, says another lawyer working with her has seen manatees, but in her year and a half in Florida so far, she hasn't. "Not yet," she says. "I'd like to, though."
Hope she does.