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Manatees need all the friends they can get

As a nature lover, I enjoy seeing animals in their native wilderness habitat, provided it is within 20 yards of plumbing and fast food. So, recently I journeyed into the heart of the city of Miami (proud motto: "No Top Elected Officials Indicted So Far This Week") to see the wild manatees.

Manatees are large, benign, vegetarian creatures that spend their lives in the water, although they are mammals, just like whales, or dolphins, or human beings who have not graduated from law school. A full-grown manatee, which can weigh more than a thousand pounds, looks like the result of a genetic experiment involving a walrus and the Goodyear Blimp. We are not talking about active, otterlike animals, here: We're talking about animals that generally display the same level of friskiness as the Chrysler building. If manatees kept their schedules on those little organizers that businesspeople are always consulting, a typical working day might look like this:

10 a.m. to 2:14 p.m. _ Float.

2:15 to 2:17 p.m. _ Emit three to four blooping, aromatic bubbles of manatee gas.

2:18 p.m. to dusk _ Continue floating.

This schedule may not look productive, but it puts manatees ahead of most branches of the federal government. The manatees have pursued this lifestyle for eons, and things were going pretty well for them until the Earth's climate changed, allowing the emergence of one of the most dangerous forces in all of nature: the recreational motorboater.

I used to do some recreational motorboating, and I can tell you for a fact that there are recreational boaters out there whose nautical alertness is such that they would not immediately notice if they drove their boats into a shopping center food court.

The result is that boaters often hit manatees. Nevertheless the manatees return, over and over, to the same boat-infested areas, because they are big believers in tradition, and also because, to put it diplomatically, if the animal kingdom were an elementary school, the manatees would not be in the gifted class.

Fortunately, the manatees have friends, including a Miami group called the Manatee Project. A researcher who works for this organization, Kit Curtin, offered to take me to see a group of manatees which hangs out in one of the waterways passing through downtown Miami, on the condition that I would not reveal where the hangout is. Kit wanted to keep it a secret because, aside from boats, the other big threat to manatees is the public. It's a well-known fact that although the public is fine when taken individually, when it forms itself into large groups, it tends to act as though it has one partially consumed Pez tablet for a brain. So when the public finds manatees, it often hassles them, or worse, it "helps" them by feeding them such foods as pizza, which you rarely find growing naturally in the underwater environment.

The Secret Manatee Hangout turned out to be in what is sometimes called a "changing" neighborhood, in the sense that, if you were there alone at night, you would be changing your underwear often. There's a fair amount of criminal activity, although Kit told me that some of the criminal elements are quite protective of the manatees; when these elements are not threatening to kill people over drug deals, they are helping to preserve the planet's delicate ecological balance by threatening to kill people who hassle the manatees. Al Gore take note!

The day I visited the Secret Hangout, there were maybe 30 manatees, most of whom Kit has named. (They're easy to distinguish, because almost all of them have large, distinctive propeller scars; some of them also boast colonies of barnacles, which can easily latch on to a manatee because of their superior foot speed.) Among the manatees on hand were Olivia, Roxy, Rosa, Fred, Texas, Booger, Napoleon, Mr. Slash, Tino, Leonardo, Mr. Kite, Rita, Hollywood, Peanut and (Bill Clinton take note!) Monica.

They were following the standard manatee schedule, floating and blooping and thinking manatee thoughts, which I imagine would mostly be along the lines of: "Ahhhhhh." Kit says they're more active during mating season, when the males, consumed by manatee lust, gather around a female to show her what studs they are, and she picks out the most desirable one.

"I don't know what they base that on," Kit said.

I have to agree, the males all looked equally desirable to me, although I'm sure that, when female manatees gossip among themselves, they single out certain males ("That Mr. Kite is HOT! Did you check out the size of his barnacle colony?").

But as far as I'm concerned, all the manatees are beautiful. Smelly, but beautiful. So if you're a recreational boater, please watch out for them. And if you're a nature-lover who would like to help them stick around for some more eons, you can contribute to the Manatee Project, Miami Museum of Science, 3280 S Miami Ave., Miami, FL 33129, or Save the Manatee Club, Adopt-a-Manatee Program, 500 N Maitland Ave., Maitland, FL 32751; (800) 432-5646. Please do not send pizza.

Dave Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald. Write to him c/o Tropic Magazine, the Miami Herald, One Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132.

Miami Herald