Thursday, January 18, 2007

Elusive Sirens of the Caribbean

As we idled around the corner of Swallow Caye I sighted two manatee noses in the distance. They were barely visible as they broke the surface of the clear Caribbean water. Gilroy, my Belizean colleague and field assistant, spotted them at the very same instant – before I could motion to him, he had already shut down the engine on our little boat. We waited in silence, hoping they would surface again. So it goes with research on the elusive manatee – the mermaids of ancient folk lore.

Many mermaid studies have been done on Florida manatees, either in captivity or in the clear waters of Florida’s many springs. But only recently have we begun to study wild manatees outside of the United States. My mermaids are Antillean manatees. They are distributed throughout the Caribbean, but their habitat is fragmented and their species is endangered. Unless we reduce our impact on Mother Earth, my great-grandchildren may never enjoy the magic of finding a mermaid in the sea. For me, the source of life’s energy is the sea – I cannot imagine a world without the magical creatures of the ocean. I invite you to come with me today, as I follow my passion, my dream come true – to celebrate a moment of oneness with a mermaid or two in the sea.

Five minutes passed - how long can these creatures stay down? What are they doing down there? I heard them before we saw them. Both noses broke the water with a forceful exhalation at virtually the same moment. Then they were down again. I quietly entered the water and stealthily snorkeled 50 meters towards their last location. Where did they go? Stop. Look. Listen. I heard them breathe again. As they finally, magically, came into focus underwater, I though to myself, "Uh oh... a mother calf pair -- they are going to run away."

But they didn't run – nor swim - away. The larger animal was about 10 feet long and probably weighed 1000 pounds - almost twice as big as the smaller one. She was gently nuzzling the small one's back with her big prehensile lips. The next time they surfaced to breath, they were nose to nose in a manatee kiss. As I floated closer, they noticed me and the nuzzling stopped. They sank slowly to the soft muddy bottom and I heard a few squeaks. Then silence as they rested side by side in typical mother-calf fashion, for almost three minutes. When the smaller one rose to the surface to breathe, I caught a glimpse of its belly and could tell it was a female; but what a surprise I had when the larger animal surfaced and I saw that she was a he! --CSS, 1999

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