Manatee Scars Come From A Fight They Can't Win

Spot a manatee, the friendly, charming and prehistoric marine animal common in Florida's waters, and you're likely to think they're constantly besieged by sharks or other toothy killers. Many bear heavy scars and other marks of attack. But, as essayist Diane Roberts writes, manatees have no natural predators. What's attacking them? Boat propellers.

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JOHN YDSTIE, Host:

Manatees have lived in the waterways along Florida's coast for millions of years. Essayist Diane Roberts recently spent a hot day on a boat reflecting on the clash between the charismatic endangered species and water-faring humans.

DIANE ROBERTS: The two manatees look a bit like underwater sofas - a little lumpy, covered in Naugahyde. Every once in a while, they flick their paddle-shaped tails and move forward a few feet along the bottom of the translucent Wakulla River. Every once in a while they come up to breathe, their noses sticking up just above the surface, serene, curious and unhurried. All they want is some aquatic weeds to eat and some safe water to swim in.

They are strict vegetarians, live to be 50 or 60 years old, and have no natural predators - unless you count us. There are only about 5,000 manatees left in Florida. They're on the verge of extinction because people like to play "Miami Vice" with power boats, roaring around at top speed on our rivers and bays. I've lived here my whole life and I've never seen a manatee that didn't have propeller scars on its back. Sometimes when there's a bad winter, they can die of cold stress, but too often they die a violent death, cut to pieces by propeller blades.

Manatees have swum in Florida waters for at least three million years. They have been around far longer than we have and they know how to take it easy, especially during the summer when it's 100 degrees and as humid as the inside of a wet wool sock. They weight a thousand pounds on average, but since they're 10 or 12 feet long, they carry it well.

Indeed, the first Europeans to encounter them in the green shallows of the Caribbean thought they were mermaids, portly mermaids with whiskers. Sailing near what is now the Dominican Republic in January 1493, Christopher Columbus wrote in his journal that these mermaids are not half as beautiful as they're painted.

Actually, I find them quite lovely, with dark soulful eyes and plain, honest faces. Perhaps manatees, unlike humans, take a long view. They are kissing cousins of elephants, derived from a land mammal which decided to return to the sea 50 million years ago, trading its forelegs for flippers. Perhaps, they thought the water was their best bet for survival. We watch them floating there in the river, seven, maybe eight feet down. They roll around each other playing, then go back to just hanging there on the limpid water.

Suddenly, they swim up toward the surface, looking at us with their ancient eyes. Maybe they're wondering why we don't join them down there. There's plenty of eelgrass for everybody.

YDSTIE: Diane Roberts teaches creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee. This is NPR News.

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