There is a legend that goes something like this: A long time ago, sailors who were away from home for a long time would see manatees and think they were mermaids.
They must have been really homesick to mistake the homely manatee for a woman.
Perhaps at the time there were plenty of manatees, but today that's not the case. Manatees _ marine mammals that have the face of an elephant, a tail like a beaver and flippers like a sea lion _ could be extinct within 10 years, according to Jesse White, a Florida-based marine mammal veterinarian.
Although there has never been an actual count of Florida manatees due to the expense of trying to locate the nomadic creatures, authorities believe fewer than 2,000 manatees remain.
Manatees live near the seashore until the water gets too cold in winter, then they travel to warmer inland rivers. While about 20 percent of their body weight consists of fat, White said manatees have no blubber layer to protect them from the cold.
They are herbivores, or plant eaters, and eat only grasses that grow in or near the water. This limits them to feeding in shallow waters, because grasses cannot grow at depths greater than 15 feet. And because they are mammals, they must breathe air, which causes them to surface about every four minutes.
In 1986, White founded the Florida Manatee Research and Educational Foundation to try to save these gentle animals, which nurse and care for their young.
He said in a phone interview recently that manatees are endangered due to water pollution, careless boaters and commercial development that results in the loss of their homes.
"We can't stop development in Florida, nor can we stop boating, and it's growing at an alarming rate," White told Children's Express. "But what we can do is to educate the public on how to boat and how to develop the shorelines to leave it natural for the animals to live there."
"I get really discouraged when I see injured manatees that have been hit by propellers," White added. "It's very sad, and it's such a waste to see a gentle creature like this cut up in shreds by motorboats."
Although people put many other concerns before manatees, White, along with representatives from the Audubon Society, thinks something should be done to help these mammals that have no natural enemies but humans.
Indians and early settlers of Florida hunted manatees for their meat, which tastes like beef, and their bones, which they used for fake ivory. The first federal law protecting the manatee was passed in 1890. Both it and Florida law make it illegal to kill a manatee and call for a $20,000 fine. The animals have been on the endangered species list since 1973.
Manatees are unique animals that evolved from the elephant and haven't changed in appearance for 8 million to 9 million years. Humans are responsible for the deaths of thousands of manatees, not only in boating accidents but by using pesticides and fertilizers that run off into the water and poison the animals' food and homes.
White says something needs to be done and that people need to care. About six years ago, he left the Miami Seaquarium in Miami and moved to Homosassa State Park in northwestern Florida (about 80 miles north of Tampa) to concentrate on saving the manatee by studying them and by educating the public.
"My studies over the years have involved studying the biology of the manatee and its nutrition," he said, "so that (we can) breed them in captivity (and) we can help put stocks back into the sea, where they won't become extinct."
In addition to adopting safe boating practices and to stop polluting the water, White urged anyone who cares about the manatees to write lawmakers asking for further laws to protect these animals and to set up sanctuaries for them.
For more information, you can write to Dr. Jesse R. White, Florida Manatee Research and Educational Foundation, 12025 N. Elkan Boulevard, Dunnellon, Fla. 32630.