Stolen Water: Saving the Everglades from Its Friends, Foes, and Floridaby W. Hodding Carter
A riotous journey through America's most controversial, beautifully unapproachable, and abused wilderness -- the Florida Everglades.
In December 2000, President Clinton signed into law a $7.8 billion restoration plan for the Everglades that garnered national attention and has since become America's touchstone for environmental issues. Enter W./b>… See more details below
A riotous journey through America's most controversial, beautifully unapproachable, and abused wilderness -- the Florida Everglades.
In December 2000, President Clinton signed into law a $7.8 billion restoration plan for the Everglades that garnered national attention and has since become America's touchstone for environmental issues. Enter W. Hodding Carter, a man already bemused by the state of Florida and determined to see what, if any, progress has been made with the Everglades. For reasons unclear even to him, this amazing, remote, mosquito-infested, hard-to-love region has captured Carter's imagination and won't let go. So, for the past few years, Carter has examined the Everglades from all angles -- social, political, cultural, environmental -- culminating in an ungodly canoe trip through the heart of the Everglades.
But this being Hodding Carter -- a man who sailed a Viking ship dressed in serge for one book and followed in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark for another -- a canoe trip the length of the Everglades is merely the tip of the iceberg. Stolen Water finds him adopting a manatee, and auditioning to be a mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs -- not enough that he reports on things, he actually has to do them, too, often to hilarious effect. In the end, though, his tireless reporting reveals the Everglades as never before. Not content with merely observing, he also interviews all the key players, from environmentalists to sugar farmers to Senator Bob Graham, and gives them just enough rope to hang themselves.
Always humane, often controversial, and highly readable, Hodding Carter has brought to life this murky, alluring place through his powerful eyewitness account and swampy mishaps. Stolen Water is narrative nonfiction at its best, from one of our most talented and funny writers.
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Read an Excerpt
I am sitting on a derelict pier outside of Melbourne, Florida, babysitting a dead manatee. It's one of those grimy mornings, where you're caked with sweat and smog by 10:00 A.M., and frankly, I'd like to be elsewhere -- like sitting in the sand, a tall mango smoothie in one hand, the latest Harry Potter in the other, my kids frolicking in the surf. Instead, I'm here on the other side of paradise, watching a manatee decompose.
This particular manatee, recently found floating in some retired couple's backyard, has just been dragged a mile through the Intracoastal Waterway while tethered to a marine patrol boat. Skin is sliding off the poor thing as though it were a blanched tomato, and it smells like forgotten, one-month-old hamburger meat in the back of your fridge. This poster animal for the Florida environmental movement isn't going to make it to the kind of photo shoot you'd prefer.
All in all, it's an unpleasant beginning to a close study of Florida's ecology.
Two teenage boys, having seen me disembark from the patrol boat, ask my permission to swim. I glance down at the manatee, tied by its tail to the closest piling. Oily fluids slowly mushroom from the decaying body into the murky waters, and the Intracoastal looks as refreshing as a festering sewage ditch. "Sure," I say, shrugging my shoulders. "Why not?"
A marine patrol officer brought the manatee and me to this spot about a half hour earlier, bitterly complaining about spending three hours out of an eight-hour day on a dead animal. How can he do this while effectively enforcing the no-wake manatee zones? So upon my suggestion, he's left us alone to wait for a state marine biologist.
A sign declaring HAVE DEAD MANATEE, WILL TALK must be hanging over the dock because as the teenagers tentatively enter the brown muck, a skinny worn-out alcoholic teeters over from his broken-down pickup truck. "I've never seen one of these before," he declares, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down like a freaked-out aquarium fish, his breath drowning me in sweet fermented fumes. "I've always wanted to. I love wildlife." He peers down, nearly losing his balance. "It's not doing so well, huh?"
"Yeah, this cold water, even though it's only in the mid-sixties, is pretty rough," I offer, passing on information I've only just learned myself. "It kills them, even."
"This one's not dead, though. Just hurting a bit, huh?" The odor of decay is about to make me barf. After I break the news, the besodden sireniaphile stumbles away, head shaking. "Oh, I wanted to see a live one. Never seen one of them."
I understand how he feels. The reason I was in Florida was to see a very special live manatee named Brutus. My youngest sister had adopted him for me on my birthday, coughing up twenty dollars to the Save the Manatee Club, a nonprofit protector of Trichechus manatus. The West Indian manatee, indigenous to the West Indies, Central America, and Florida, isn't doing so well, although humans have been trying to protect them as far back as 1764, when Florida was briefly an English colony. "His majesty (proposes) that an Instruction should be given to the Governor of the Provence of East Florida," declared a representative of King George, "to restrain him from granting to any person whatsoever, without His Majesty's particular Orders and directions, those parts of the Coast of the said Province frequented by the Animals called the Manati or Sea Cow, where they have their Echouries or Landing Places."
Of course, everyone ignored this and Florida eventually became the developer's Mecca that currently makes it the fastest growing state in the nation. And as far as the manatee itself goes, humans continued to hunt the poor bastard to near extinction until it was placed on the endangered species list in 1973. Today, it's not faring much better, especially when compared to fellow endangered classmates like the bald eagle and the wolf, both of which were recently delisted. There were only a few thousand back when the manatee was first classified as endangered and today there are still only an estimated three thousand.
What do Brutus and his fellow Sirenia (the manatee's order) have to do with the Everglades? Well, pretty much everything. I've come to believe that as the manatee goes, so goes the Everglades. Their past, their fate, and even their range are intertwined. Look at one closely -- how it lives, where it lives, and what we do to help it live -- and you've looked at the other. The manatee also serves as a primer on Florida's environmental management programs. The mammmal's traditional habitat was the Everglades and its surrounding waters, and development has pushed both the Everglades and the manatee to the brink of extinction. And if we really protect the Everglades, then we'll probably end up protecting the manatee far into the future, or vice versa. So, we begin with the manatee.
The day Brutus's adoption packet arrives I don't know all of this, of course. Instead, I'm just wondering what silly thing has my sister done. Who has time to care about manatees? is all I'm thinking. Glancing at the club's literature, I learn that they only mate every two to three years and their gestation period lasts three months longer than a human's. Multiple offspring are nearly unheard of, and they have a high infant mortality rate. Their cousins, the Steller's sea cow, were hunted to extinction centuries ago. Florida's manatees are threatened today because they live in the shallows of both fresh- and saltwater, where pollution and development destroy their habitats. Boats hit them all the time. Well, that's awful, I mutter, and begin wondering how best to remove gum from my daughter's hair. But then something about Brutus's sad face and sunken eyes catches my attention. He is, after all, family.
As I read on, I notice that Brutus, probably in his late thirties, is very close to me in age. He likes to swim; I like to swim. He eats nearly 200 pounds of hyacinths and other water plants a day; I've been known to eat a lot, too, although I've never tried a water hyacinth. He weighs nearly 2,000 pounds; I weigh 165. He is quite the ladies' man, always seen chasing the girls; I, well...But what is this? According to the literature, Brutus is often found sleeping by himself. Is he depressed? Bitter? Suffering a midlife crisis since manatees only live to sixty? Suddenly I decide we have to make sure he is okay. "Brutus, we're on our way! Don't you worry!" I call out, speaking also for my wife and three daughters. "We'll swim together. Take some pictures. Let you meet your sisters. Make you feel like part of the family. Everything is gonna be all right!"
Before heading down to Florida, I figure I need to talk to Jimmy Buffet. I've noticed he co-founded the Save the Manatee Club in 1981 with then-Governor Bob Graham, and I figure he'll have a word or two to pass on to Brutus. I call his publicist, whose blunt response strikes me like a whirring propeller (the average manatee is hit by boat props up to twelve times a year, according to one informal study). "Jimmy is not available to participate. He is only making himself available for national television programs." Undeterred, I have her submit some questions anyway. "Do you have any message you might want to give Brutus or any of the other manatees you're helping to save?" I ask, and "Do you know anyone who might have been a manatee in a former life?" The publicist gets back to me a few days later and says Jimmy isn't answering the questions, not even the one asking how he might begin a song about manatees.
Hell, even I can do that:
Nibblin' on eel grass,
Watchin' some mare's ass;
All of those big boats loaded with Bud.
Swimmin' to warm springs, listenin' to props zing.
See our backs!
They're covered with blood.
Wasted away again in Manateeville,
Searchin' for our lost celebrity friend.
Some people claim that he'll bring us to fame,
But we know, this is surely our end.
Well, hopefully not, but things do look dire for the manatee, despite the efforts of the Save the Manatee Club and a cobweb of federal and state wildlife agencies. Between the club's adoption program and the state of Florida's Save the Manatee license plates and various other fund-raising efforts, millions of dollars are spent each year on rescue efforts, government research projects, and educational programs (for humans, not manatees) from Florida to the Carolinas. It's an uphill battle, against such well-connected foes as Wade Hopping, lobbyist for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, who a few years back called for the species' delisting because the manatees, he said, had made such a great comeback. Hopping speaks for boaters who don't like the no-wake and no-boat zones posted in high-density manatee habitats. Meanwhile, the manatee's mortality rate has slowly been increasing. (Three hundred and five died in 2002, and boats caused one-third of those deaths.) You don't have to be a pathologist to figure out why. A manatee's rib bones are solid and heavy, not porous like ours. When one of these bones is broken by impact, say whacked by an overloaded Ski-Doo, it's like having a hardwood two-by-four snapping apart inside you and splintering right into your heart, lungs, liver -- anything vital.
Luckily, Topping and his cohorts haven't won yet, and in a few of the no-boat zones, the manatees are doing quite well. Brutus's wintering grounds, Blue Spring State Park, is among them.
Back in 1970, when motorboats were still allowed at Blue Spring, only eleven manatees basked in its warm, calm waters, which fed the equally languorous Saint Johns River. Now, more than a hundred gather there each winter. Many scientists believe there are three distinct Florida manatee populations, although all are of the same species: the East Coast manatees, whose range stretches from Miami up to the Carolinas; the West Coast manatees, who travel from the Keys as far west as Alabama, and the Saint Johns. The main Saint Johns attraction is Blue Spring itself. Fed by groundwater seeping through limestone bedrock, it remains a constant 72 degrees: manatee heaven.
That springwater sounds inviting, but I am told swimming with the manatees is a no-no. "We consider it harassment," Nancy Sadusky, spokeswoman for the Save the Manatee Club, explains. Detecting my disappointment, however, she hastily adds, "You can still take Brutus's picture if you see him."
Blue Spring State Park is thirty miles northeast of Orlando, and as we make our way there, my wife, Lisa, and I try to prep our kids about Brutus and his friends. While driving down McDonald's-Exxon-Comfort Inn-Jiffy Lube Lane in Orange City, about to turn off for the park, Lisa tells the kids that Brutus, like most manatees, can be identified by the propeller scars on his back and that Brutus has a couple of big ones. "Why do the boats cut Brutus?" asks Eliza, then four. Because the boats go too fast in shallow water, we answer.
Anabel, her twin, chimes in. "Is Brutus better?"
Yes, yes, we say. Helen, our wise two-and-a-half-year-old, holds her own sage counsel, staring mutely at her manatee book.
"But the boats might cut his back again, huh?" Eliza continues.
We arrive at the spring before we have to answer. "Bruuuuutus!" the girls yell, running to the boardwalk that hugs the spring's shore. "Where are you, Brutus?"
A lush hammock of magnolias, live oaks, and pines engulfs the bank, making it nearly impossible to see the spring except at a few cleared overlooks. The girls pry their way past dozens of baffled tourists staring blankly at the vividly clear water at the closest viewing area. But there's nothing to see except a few fat catfish and a small school of tilapia. Brutus, along with all the other manatees, is nowhere in sight.
The park allows visitors to swim in a section of the spring each day -- just not near the manatees -- and half a dozen people are already splashing around the narrow waterway. Human-manatee interaction isn't a problem because, understandably, the manatees have left. Park rules state that if a manatee were to reappear, everyone would have to get out of the water. (Fat chance, unless there's a ranger around.) As a result of this open-swim policy, the manatees head back into the sixty-degree (or colder) river every afternoon, traveling perhaps dozens of miles for food and with any luck, a shallow pocket of warm water. Most manatees get cold stress at anything below sixty-eight degrees. Prolonged exposure to the cold water causes internal infections and canker-like sores, similar to frostbite, on their extremities. This often leads to death. Knowing this, the park tried to squash swimming a few years back, but bowed to political pressure after divers complained to their state legislators.
We wait around, hoping against hope that Brutus might show, despite the swimmers. Besides my concern for him, I don't want to have come all the way from Maine for nothing. But hours pass, and no Brutus. Dejected, we set up our tent in an RV site at the park, since no tent sites are available. Thirty miles northeast of Orlando might be a great place for manatees, but it's a little less so for humans. The area's sprawling development is as inescapable and frightening as the giant strip mall that stretches all the way from Orlando. During our entire stay at the state park, beeping, churning construction equipment serenades us wherever we go. The 3700-acre park makes a poor holdout in the fight against overdevelopment.
Later, while our girls are pouring topsoil over each other, Lisa suddenly blurts out that the tourists are depressing; Blue Spring gets up to two thousand visitors a day because of the manatees, and we've seen people dropping trash all over the park grounds, chasing great blue herons, and generally causing a ruckus. "They're a blight on this beautiful setting," she adds.
"What makes us any better?" I ask, slightly defensive. After all, I've dragged her and the girls down here on my whim. A seemingly befuddled, foot-long box turtle walks by.
"We're not. We're a blight, too. We should all commit mass suicide."
Our friends Russell Kaye, Sandi Phipps, and their daughter, Lucy, join us a little later at our campsite. Russell and Sandi have come to photograph the manatees, but suffering from a family-sized case of strep throat, the three of them are no boost to our sagging morale. We go to sleep early that night to the sounds of a fellow camper's radio.
The next morning, after temporarily putting off a mutiny to abandon Blue Spring and drive over to the Gulf Coast to see the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs, Russell and I accompany park ranger Wayne Hartley on his daily head count, while our families watch the manatees from the boardwalk. The air temperature is a cool fifty degrees, making it a good chance Brutus has turned up. When I ask Hartley about the chances of a Brutus sighting, he says that Brutus does return to Blue Spring every year, as my brochure had claimed, but he only stays for a few days at a time and then disappears for weeks. "It's got to be really cold to keep old Brutus in," he says.
A big man but not quite man-atee big, Hartley has been monitoring the annual winter retreat to Blue Spring for twenty years.
We paddle just a few yards past the no-boat zone (marked by PVC piping stretched across the mouth of the spring) and hover over a bunch of manatees. It is extremely underwhelming. They look like sunken fat cactuses with sparse bristly hairs dotting their bulbous backs. Eventually one slowly rises to the surface, just inches from our boat, revealing its stoppered snout, making me suddenly giddy. It is so close; it might be Brutus. The nose unplugs and a reverberating exhale, similar to the spouting of a small whale, echoes across the still waters. Its breath smells a bit like a deflating tire, only mustier.
"Brutus?" I ask.
"No, that's...Phyllis," says Hartley. One hundred and thirty-one manatees have come up to Blue Spring this winter, and he and various scientists have named nearly every one of them.
Another and another and another rise around us. Soon dozens of exhaling cactuses surround our canoes. (That's really how they look from overhead.) I haven't expected it to be like this, great clumps of them floating beneath us as we paddle overhead. Manatees are supposedly solitary creatures, but scores have rendezvoused at the spring's warm mouth, conserving their energy by letting the waters keep them warm. Calves nurse for up to two years, but one mother not only has her one-year-old close to her side but also a pair of older adoptees vying for nourishment.
Hartley begins a running dialogue with his friends that doesn't stop until we are back on shore two hours later. "Glad to see you, Floyd....There you are, Jax. No, you're not Jax. Wait -- yeah, you are, tail buried in sand." Half of Jax's tail is missing, perhaps from a run-in with fishing line. Next to boating accidents, entanglement is the single biggest cause of injuries. "There's Georgia," Hartley continues, taking pictures and recording distinguishing marks while he talks. I half-expect him to give each manatee a friendly slap across the back, he reminds me so much of a politician courting his constituents. "Third year back. Great success story. Picked up at sixty-three pounds. Six years at SeaWorld, released here." Georgia looks to be at least fifteen hundred pounds, if not more. "Problem is that Georgia likes people too much. She's even tried to climb steps out of the run to follow someone. She's taught her calf Peaches to like people, too." Hartley sweeps his paddle over the water, indicating the whole lot. "The brats, I could beat them all." Peaches, by the way, is a boy. You can tell the differences in sex by the proximity of the genitalia opening to the umbilical scar and anus. Males' are closer to the umbilical scar, females' to the anus. (Of course, the manatee must roll on its back for you to see this.)
One manatee takes a shine to me and won't leave my end of the canoe, nuzzling up to me, trying to touch my hand. "Oh, that's Unknown Eleven," Wayne says, glancing over his shoulder, noticing a tail scar. Finally I silently touch its head, unable to resist. According to the manatee-human interaction rules of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this touching is okay because the manatee has approached me, but the park does not condone such behavior.
Unknown 11's skin is rougher than I thought it'd be, almost like sandpaper. The manatee comes back for more -- clearly very fond of me. I begin to believe that there's this simpatico thing between us, but Hartley says this behavior isn't unusual or safe. "The more they like hanging around people, the more they hang around boats and thus the more they get hit," he cautions.
I ask if Brutus is like this. Wayne laughs. "Naw," he said. "Brutus is a real manatee. He moves away from the canoe, if he is awake. He is very calm, laid back, though."
We see seventy-two manatees this morning, but no Brutus.
That night during dinner at an Olive Garden, about the only place in town that serves salad, I get more grief, not only for keeping us in central Florida but seemingly also for the whole manatee situation. "I wish they didn't give the manatees names," Sandi says. "What's with calling him Brutus? Or Louie? It anthropomorphizes them. It's kind of weird, don't you think? It makes you want to pet them."
Ashamed, I don't mention touching Unknown 11.
Brutus does not show up the following day, either. It is just too warm, with the air temperature in the seventies and eighties during the day and only the low fifties at night. Weighing roughly a ton, Brutus, and most of the older manatees, have little need for Blue Spring. So Russell and I head over to Melbourne on the Atlantic Coast to watch a "manatee recovery," while our families go see some mermaids at Weeki Wachee on the Gulf Coast.
And that's how I end up babysitting the dead manatee. The manatee and I sit there for another half hour watching the teenagers contract tetanus before Ann Spellman, a biologist for the state-run Florida marine Research Institute, arrives with Russell in her manatee rescue/recovery trailer. All recovered manatees are given a necropsy to determine age and cause of death, and once we have this young male loaded up, Spellman decides to perform the postmortem right in the parking lot behind her office. The nearest pathology lab is three hours away, and she has to hurry to an afternoon meeting (where she will be told that her already-meager budget is being cut).
"The first thing I like to do is cut the head off to get it out of the way," Spellman explains, as scores of flies swarm around her and the manatee. It is the seventh of January and already this is her fourth postmortem of the year. She is squatting inside the partially enclosed trailer, which has a slick fiberglass coating so it can be easily hosed out. A pervasive stench clings to anything within a dozen feet. Apparently breathing through her nose as well as her mouth, Spellman immediately slices through two layers of fat and muscle. Two more quick strokes with her poultry knife ("It has a good long handle," she says) and the manatee's head is severed from its spine. The head slides a few inches on its own fluids and stares out the van in understandable disgust. "At least he's not a slimer," she says. Evidently, slimers have been rotting for even longer than this pup and are named for obvious reasons.
Pointing out puffy white sores on the animal's flippers, tail, and head, Spellman initially thinks it has died of cold stress. Dozens of barnacles cling to what is left of the manatee's skin, which has peeled off from decomposition, but there are no signs of recent boat scars.
Spellman slices through half a foot of meat and finds swollen lymph glands and other signs of infection that support her initial evaluation. Seeing the manatee cut up, it no longer seems so surprising that these animals cannot handle what seems like relatively warm water. Although there might be a foot of meat between skin and internal organs, there is shockingly little insulating fat, less than an inch in thickness, so little as to make a seal die of laughter. Russell, for example, has plenty more fat than a manatee.
As Spellman studies the cadaver more closely, though, she begins to notice odd things -- a bloodred liver that should be brown, a collapsed left lung. Then she realizes two ribs are out of place. She turns the animal on its side. An ugly white scar that we hadn't seen earlier stretches across its back. "Boat," she says and then starts digging around the ribs more hurriedly. Turns out there are six fractured ribs from the impact. Judging from its size, Spellman guesses the manatee to be a two-year-old, perhaps still nursing. I ask her if this doesn't upset her. "I love animals, but it's like I'm a fireman," she says. "You don't see a fireman bawling his eyes out at the scene. You start bawling your eyes out while watching a stupid schlocky movie, not here."
Spellman cleans up the mess, stores the head to be sent off to a bio lab (where its exact age can be determined by growth rings in the ear bones), hauls the carcass to the landfill, and heads off to her budget meeting. Since it is still extremely hot out and Brutus is nowhere to be found (I've checked with Wayne by phone), Russell and I rush across-state to catch the mermaid show.
Lisa, Sandi, and the girls have already seen the morning performance. "They've got a summer mermaid camp," Lisa gushes when we arrive. "Their makeup stays on even when they're underwater. You should see how they hold their breath."
"Do they look anything like manatees?" I ask. Supposedly, sailors, long at sea, started the mermaid myth by thinking manatees were women with tails. Christopher Columbus was the first historical source for the connection, and all he wrote was that the mermaids (which were really manatees) were not quite as handsome as artists had portrayed them over the years.
"No," she continues unflustered, her face flushed. Evidently, she's discovered her next career. "But to become a mermaid all I have to do is be able to hold my breath for a few minutes underwater while changing costumes....Did I tell you Elvis is here?" Back in the early sixties Weeki Wachee was hip: Don Knotts, Elvis, and lots of people I'd never heard of made it to the hourly shows. To this day, Elvis can still be heard over the loudspeaker.
The show, a musical rendition of The Little Mermaid, is mesmerizingly awful. How do they get that makeup to stay on? One of the mermaids slides right past the underwater glass, and personally, I can't see how the mermaid/manatee myth ever started. These mermaids at Weeki Wachee look nothing like manatees. To begin with, manatees' breasts are found under their front flippers, and that certainly isn't the case with the Weeki Wachee mermaids, and the lack of said flippers sort of negates the argument, too.
"They're so cute," the woman behind us says at the show's conclusion.
Well, manatees are cute, too, but in a different sort of way.
While you can barely even look at a live manatee at Blue Spring, the wild and woolly West Coast is a different story. That night we stay in a trailer home at the Marine Park Inn on Homosassa River a few miles up from Weeki Wachee. A huge billboard out on the road says SWIM WITH THE MANATEES. This we have to see.
We rent a pontoon boat the next morning and slowly waddle up the river toward its source -- another warm spring, and the reason for the hundred or so manatees that convene on cold winter days. Not far from the mouth of the spring, nearly twenty tourist-choked pontoon boats and more than a hundred snorkelers are packed in an area half the size of a football field. It is manateemania. Not only are these people swimming with the manatees, but they are also rubbing the manatees' bellies and backs. Some people even look as if they're trying to have sex with the poor beasts. Others, like part of a hunting party, are chasing down retreating manatees, desperate not to let them get away.
There are no law enforcement people around and there never are, according to two hapless Manatee Watch volunteers, who paddle up next to us. When they see something unlawful happening, the volunteers approach the swimmers and discourage them from breaking the law. "We feel the manatees are being harassed by the dive boats, but there's nothing we can do," the woman tells us. A few minutes after we speak, the volunteers do successfully break up a gang of people that have separated a mother from her calf. Mostly, though, the volunteers just paddle along, caring but ineffective. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers in this area only give out half a dozen tickets for harassing manatees in a given year, and in five minutes we've witnessed about seventy infractions. Where are those guys? Some of the tour boats are not obeying the no-wake zone, and their captains certainly aren't discouraging their paying customers from breaking the rules -- they smile distantly as snorkeler after snorkeler harasses a fleeing manatee.
"Hey," one particularly goofy snorkeler yells out, "he's got my hand with his flipper and won't let go! He really won't." Take him down, I plead silently. Take him down. A woman wading nearby says, "They're so cute."
To be fair, some of the manatees are clearly attracted to the boats and humans. Lisa, Russell, and Sandi get in to take pictures and one or two manatees approach them. The manatees perform headstands and even nudge them with their noses to get scratched and petted. Whether this is true affection, or simply a result of years of being hand-fed lettuce by misguided tourists is hard to tell. I jump in, too -- like everyone else, I just have to get a look from underwater. It's not often you get to be within inches of a wild animal, you say to yourself. "See, we're not all bad," you're thinking as it gets closer and closer. Then, you reach out and...another manatee is dead.
My reverie is broken. What the hell is going on here? This is an endangered species. Back when bald eagles were on the endangered list, you couldn't even possess one of their feathers. People aren't supposed to touch endangered species. Boats shouldn't be able to motor up to an endangered species and then drop dozens of ignorant tourists in their laps. There shouldn't be signs on the highway exhorting people to swim with the endangered manatees. Go swim with a Weeki Wachee mermaid! What is the State of Florida doing to these poor animals? What is the U.S. government doing?
Hell, why not let people feed them, take them home as pets, shoot them even? I've read that the meat tastes pretty good; people still poach them to this very day. Soak their tails in brine and have a party! It doesn't really matter. They're not going to be around much longer anyway, except in aquariums and zoos, if Florida keeps developing at its current rate.
So I'm just about to touch the one swimming up to me, when I wake up and kick my feet madly to scare him away, hop out of the water, rev the engine as loudly as possible, and happily see a few manatee splash down to deeper, safer water.
The next day Lisa, the girls, and I return to Blue Spring, still hoping to catch a glimpse of Brutus.
We paddle into the wide, coffee-colored Saint Johns from the mouth of the hot spring. It's a dark river, stained with tannin, and it seems unlikely that we'll see any manatees, let alone Brutus. It is a Sunday and dozens of boats motor up and down the river; only a few are disobeying the no-wake zone.
Occasionally one of us calls out, "Brutus!" scaring up egrets and herons but no Brutus. Once we startle a twelve-foot alligator snoozing on the northern bank, and the creature scurries directly toward us. Alligators don't eat manatees; the lummoxes are just too thick for their jaws, but they have been known to eat a young child now and then, so we casually suggest to the girls that they stop paddling for a minute.
Finally, when enough mosquitoes have bitten us and the girls are scanning in all directions for attacking alligators, I stand up in the canoe.
"Daddy, don't do that," Anabel says. "You said we're not s'posed to."
I explain this is a special case. I'm planning to make one last plea. Perhaps I started out as a deadbeat adoptive parent, but now I truly care. I want to be there for him, the adopted son I've never known. But something profoundly different comes out of my mouth. "Brutus!" I yell. "Don't come back! We're not worth it!"
Brutus does come back, of course. A few weeks later Wayne Hartley e-mails to announce his return. Like all manatees, he needs that warm water. Brutus has been coming to Blue Spring for thirty years and he probably will continue to do so until the day he dies.
I hope I never see him.
Copyright © 2004 by W. Hodding Carter
Meet the Author
W. Hodding Carter has written for several national magazines, including Esquire, Smithsonian, Newsweek, and Outside. The author of Westward Whoa, A Viking Voyage, and An Illustrated Viking Voyage, he lives with his family in Rockport, Maine.
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