In the previous post, I mentioned having come to know some injured and orphaned manatees at INPA, the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas de Amazonas, in Manaus, Brazil, more commonly known auf Englisch as the Amazonian Research Institute. I was on leave from college, loosely associated with a graduate student in ornithology, doing various odd jobs and learning to paint birds. The year was 1979.
There were all kinds of odd things around INPA, not least of which was a mixed community of world citizens, all there to study Amazonian life. There were also some large aboveground swimming pools, each of which housed a manatee. Most had been orphaned by hunters and bottle-fed, so they were tame as tame could be. One young male was my special favorite, for his sense of humor. I'd go there in the evenings to play pennywhistle for the manatees, who would hang their flippers over the sides of their pools to stand up and listen appreciatively. I'd teeter on the edge of his pool as I played, and he would circle faster and faster. Suddenly, he'd come up right beneath me and plant a huge wet manatee kiss on my butt, pushing me up, trying to tip me into the pool. Do I wish I'd had a camera then? Yes, oh yes.
At INPA, I learned that these orphaned manatees desperately needed a loving touch, and I watched the Brazilian caretakers, all women, take the babies in their arms as they gave them their bottles. Being as lonely in those six solitary months as I'd ever been in my life, the manatees and I gave each other many a hug. Touch is extremely important to these denizens of muddy, dark waters, and manatees are in nearly constant contact, stroking each other with flippers, whiskers and tail.
Their valvelike nostrils have to be seen to be believed, opening and closing with an airtight seal. I regret to say that I have not been lucky enough to exchange breaths with a manatee, the way I love to do with horses and cattle, because the nostrils stay closed tight until the manatee inhales, and it happens very quickly, and then the nostrils slam shut again. In the picture above, don't miss her tiny bright eye under all the waterweed. I have to tell you that manatee skin is like the finest silky microfiber. It's not rubbery, really; manatees aren't hard and taut like dolphins. They're more squooshy and silky than that. They feel more like a blubbery water balloon, or a heavy lady in a wetsuit.
Mike leans down to get acquainted, as the manatee inhales his scent. We're not in Brazil here; we're in the Georgetown Botanic Garden in Guyana, South America, where some tame manatees dwell.
The manatees appreciated our handouts of lush grass from places where they couldn't forage.photo by Mike Weedon
I let them suck on my fingers, too, just like calves, all the while crooning and singing to them, telling them what wonderful animals they were. I know they enjoyed it. Since manatees have only rubbery gums up front (the powerful crushing molars are in back), and since they are such lovely animals, I never felt afraid letting them suck on my fingers. But then I am the one down on my knees by koi ponds letting giant three-foot-long carp suck on my fingers, so maybe I'm a special case. OK. Not just maybe.photo by Mike Weedon
We love you, too!
Each manatee has a distinctive white patch on its chest, but you have to be underneath them to see it.
It's quite rare to get a full-body picture of a mantee. Check out that amazing paddle of a tail.
Please do not go. Please stay here and feed us for awhile longer.
But wait. What's that little flipper by your tail, Missy?
AGGGGGH!!! A baby, keeping its flipper on Mama just to make sure she's there. I'm about as happy as a Science Chimp gets. Birds? What do you mean, it's time to go watch more birds? People. There are MANATEES here! Just leave me here in the rain with these gentle, beautiful beasts. I'll catch up.