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Manatee Love

Thursday, December 11, 2008

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 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 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.


Aww!!! I want to hug a manatee! What lovely, cute creatures. Are they in any less danger of being run over by boats in Guyana than they are in Florida?

Thanks Julie. I'm all squishy and mooshy inside now!

Oh, I DO love sea cows!! I was on Captiva Island a few years ago for a Board (bored) meeting of all things. Luckily most of my association's board members know of my love of all animals and one morning one called me at 6:00 am apologizing profusely for calling me so early but was walking along a pier and spied two manatees. I thanked HER profusely for letting me know and I was out the door in a flash to see them. I think I even bought a little stuffed manatee (toy!) at the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge.

Hugging a manatee might have to go on my bucket list!

I'm all goosebumply. This post is magical.

I have had to read your two manatee posts to Vivi about twenty-eleven times this morning. She wants to go to Guyana. I'm sure Tom will be thrilled. ;-)

There's nothing like physical contact with an animal to make an instant bond. I feel blessed beyond measure to have touched them and been touched back. Glad you all could experience it with me, and I wish you all a brick-and-mortar (skin and blubber) experience in your lifetimes.

Hoperu, there are a LOT fewer people and a lot fewer boats in Guyana than Florida! As you can see, these are spotless, though there was a suspicious round scar in the mama's neck, hmm. Any big, slow-moving, tame mammal is going to suffer abuse, unfortunately.

Trix, I've re-read the posts a bunch, too! Tell Vivi to look for the baby's tail in the first full-body shot of Mom--I missed it the first hundred times I looked at the picture. And tell her Phoebe and Liam are all googly over them, too. Then hug her for us!

I look at a manatee (or more accurately, a picture!) and I think, "why does that animal exist?"

It is such a primordial beast, and it fills me with sheer delight and deep sadness at the same time. I don't exactly know why.

But I am glad it exists.

INPA, huh? My best friend from forever, Judy Rankin de Merona worked there for years as a botanist. Now she is in France with her husband. She may have just been getting there in 1979.
Also glad to know you can easily pet manatees. The lore around here is that they will upset your kayak but I never believed it...I'm going to pet the next ones I run across.

...maybe I'm a special case. OK. Not just maybe.

YOU ARE VERY SPECIAL. Like Texas2Tennessee said, "I'm all squishy and mooshy inside now", because of you.

This story will stay with me for a long time. Ahhh, to sing to and touch a Manatee...

PFWG, I knew Judy Rankin! I used to draw and write in her office at night when she wasn't there, as I had no place of my own at INPA. She had an air conditioner. Ahh. She was kind to me although I think I annoyed her by messing around in her office. Just another amazing congruence. Say hi to her for me?

Whoa!!! They're so sweet!

if you wanna do another 5 or 10 posts on manatees JZ, I don't think anyone here will object!!

Ooooo! Gotta get me some sirenian love! What sweet, soulful creatures. It was clearly a two-way lovefest.

How magical indeed. I am grinning from ear to ear. :c)

LIke so many of my experiences in Guyana, it ended too soon. That's all I've got on manatees. Y'all are so manatee crazy I could probably have posted one picture at a time and dragged it out for a couple of weeks, but there's way too much else to share.

One of the things that bemuses me is that everyone else just walked by these animals without bothering to engage them. It took a little boy to lead us.

I know better than to envy you all your trips to exotic places, air travel sucks.
However, mantatee trump air travel and at least for a while life birds.

Superb story.

Wow--what a neat post. About all I know of manatees is that they get the crap beat out of them by (stupid) boaters zooming along with their killer propellers.
No wonder sailers thought manatees were mermaids--that need for love!

I have often thought that little boys are magical creatures. Sometimes I wish I had one!

Beautiful post, Julie. A flipper touch. That's so incredible.

John Lithgow wrote a small poem/book for kids (all ages) called, I'm a Manatee. It's one of my all time faves. I wish I were a Manatee!!! Especially after reading your posts, Julie.

I'm grateful you didn't let those aquatic shmoos turn themselves into a nice ham dinner for your dining pleasure. (The self-sacrificing shmoo theory does open a new line of inquiry as to their decline. And here I was pinning all the blame on those those motorboat cowboys.)

That was marvelous, Julie! What a magical experience, and the photos--especially getting down to the baby sticking close to Momma--really lend warmth to your story. Thank you for sharing that... And I envy you the experience.

this is soooooo cool! i have seen manatees many times in florida and some quite close up but not like this!!! so so cool. did you know we had a manatee in cape cod bay this fall? it caused quite a stir. they (the ubiquitous ones--i think it was people from the stranding network and the new england aquarium) tried to truck it down to florida but unfortunately it didn't make it. i guess it was very cold and weak from being in the cooling water....

Wow! I never knew manatees were so affectionate! What amazing creatures! And to see the baby, that had to be phenomenal.

Hmmmmmmm…I built a Koi pond once upon a time. A nice sized pond, but my fish were not quite so big. Still, one of my favorite summertime pastimes was to sit on the rocks at the edge of the pond and dangle my feet in the water. The fish used to nibble my toes. Heh, heh, heh…I think you run with a crowd of ‘special cases’.

Such adventures you have! I’d be knee deep in the water with the creatures, too.

Question...have they yet made cages manditory for the propellers on boats where the manatees live? I sure hope so!

Late in replying, b/c I hadn't had the strength to type. I have been a melted pool of goo over these wonderful photos and the story that goes with them. I can imagine Liam as the boy who shared his manatees with the adults. So sweet!

I think if I had been there, I would have had them bring me my luggage and just camped out on the bank with the manatees. What an experience, to see and touch such special creatures. For that, I would have put up with all the bugs, heat, humidity and discomfort of your trip.

~Kathi, in love with manatees

Gosh, I saw my first manatee about 5 years ago, when I went to Homosassa Springs in FL. I was expecting something about the size of a small seal.

Those things are bigger than cars, LOL!

They were very, very gentle animals, and we got to feed them some carrots. Sweet.

How cool to see a mantee.

Late to the party, but I just have to say, "I finally get it!" For years I've heard people go all gooey about manatees, and never could understand the attraction. Thanks to your loving explanation, I can see past their rubber-suit looks to their gentle souls. Thank you!

Neat pictures and story Julie. Thanks for sharing them with us.
Manatees are endangered, aren't they? (or just in the US?)

My moms favorite animal is the manatee she will be so thrilled to see this.

This was so touching and wonderful! I was thrilled to learn about your past experience with the manatees and see your interaction with them on this trip. I know it must have been hard to tear yourself away!!!! I can't believe other people were just walking by...yes, a little child shall always lead us! And, oh, April, read your comment, too--they love carrots? I have to get back to FL!!!! :-)


Petting manantees in the wild teaches them to associate people with food and attention. They are more likely to approach boats and people with bad intentions, where they can be seriously injured or killed. The best thing you can do for the animals you cherish is to leave them alone in the wild. It's not just a good idea, it's the law. Your blog affects a lot of people, and they are learning from you it's ok to approach protected and vulnerable animals in the wild. Start spreading the right message for the manatees.

Posted by Anonymous April 20, 2010 at 11:28 AM

Your point is well taken, Anonymous; I agree with you, and I wish you'd left your name. In case you missed it: These manatees were confined, in a captive situation in an urban botanical garden. No harm is done to them by interacting with them. I believe the benefit of conveying their gentle spirit to like-minded people, who are extremely unlikely to try to pet a wild manatee, far outweighs the potential detriment of which you warn.

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