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High summer. Sarasota, western Florida, and the bridges linking the Keys (off-shore islands) hum with traffic. Boutiques throng with tourists, construction cranes loom high, the beaches are peppered with sunbathers courting melanoma and the surface of the Gulf of Mexico is torn by Jet-skis.

Manatees, popularly known as sea cows, are like dugongs, but larger.

It is the last place, frankly, that one would expect to encounter manatees.

Manatees, however, there still are. With the help of volunteers and scientists from Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory, long may they remain, bobbing and grazing the sea-grass beds mere meters from the madding crowd.

The most frequently asked question when we announced that we would be covering a manatee conservation program in Sarasota was, “A mana-what?”

To which we responded, “A manatee. It’s like a dugong only larger. Five meters long. Weighs around 500 kg. Popularly known as a sea cow. Alleged inspiration of the mermaid myth, perhaps because it’s got two breasts, perhaps because the sailors who first saw it were blind drunk or had been at sea for an unhealthily long time.”

The next question was, “A dug-what?”

Before continuing, let’s clear these issues up.

Simply, unscientifically stated, manatees and dugongs are marine mammals that resemble gigantic sausages with broad, sweeping tails. They have piggy little eyes, resplendent whiskers, two flippers and soft, wuffly, walruslike noses.

Definitely not mermaids.

This said, when one looks a manatee in its bewildered-seeming face it has the power to win one’s heart. One has an almost overwhelming urge to give it a hug and reassure it that everything will turn out OK; that it won’t be made extinct, or be run over by some yahoo in a motor boat, or poisoned by effluent, or starved of its principal foodstuff, sea grass, or have some developer landfill its mangroves in the interests of golf dollars.

None of these reassurances would be true, of course. The manatee and the dugong are in a whole heap of man-made trouble. Plus, hugging wild animals is never wise.

Still, there is something so infinitely inoffensive and bumblingly vulnerable about these creatures that one feels compelled to anthropomorphize. To chuck journalistic objectivity straight into the bin and become personally involved. At least, that’s what happened to us.

First, a few more facts. Dugongs live in East Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific and Australia. There is even a small population in Okinawa.

Manatees, by contrast, live in American and West African coastal waters, and the Amazon. The North American population is most abundant around the United States’ longest peninsula — Florida.

The Mote Marine Laboratory, therefore, is well situated. Mote is one of those lively environmental establishments dedicated to marine research that seems to be populated entirely by women.

Marine conservationists intrigue me. The men, with exceptions of course, tend to grow beards, be on the short side and look earnestly fat. Take their glasses off and they might even pass for dugongs.

The women, by contrast, have phenomenal legs, go blonde and, should studying the feeding patterns of Tursiops tursiops for 15 years pall, could all find alternative employment pouting in perfume ads.

The Mote women are like that. So are a lot of the volunteers, though there was a British riot policeman who slightly broke the mold.

Mote’s work has various goals. There’s pure behavioral research, of course. What does a manatee do? Where does it do it? When does it stop doing it? Crucial questions like that. To this end, scientists and volunteers spend a considerable part of each day in a boat within hailing distance of Sarasota’s tourist cafes following slowly moving manatees and watching what goes on.

Volunteers join in feeding injured manatees being nursed back to health at Mote Marine Laboratories.

It is a sad, if scientifically convenient, fact that virtually every manatee in Florida has, at one time or another, been hit by a speedboat. The manatees either die or become easy to identify, because each has its own, individually propeller-sculpted scars, cuts and tail rips.

Monitoring manatees could not be called adventurous. For those used to life in the fast lane, it might even be said to be a trifle manateenous. We prefer the word relaxing. There’s sunshine, sea, mangroves and you in a boat taking notes or photos of manatees.

Sorting photos is, I’d have to say, kind of dull. There are millions of them, all dated, all rather similar, all needing sorting. Volunteers do a fair amount of this.

Feeding injured manatees in Mote’s aquarium is an effective antidote. Here one gets to see manatees up close. One also gets to ask oneself the important question: “Why did I forget to bring my UV filter? The glare of sunlight on this water is screwing up potentially world-class manatee photos!”

Still, its not a bad thing from time to time to just forget the damn camera and wade into the action with an armful of healthy vegetables. Manatees eat 50 kg a day. Mote’s lettuce bills are immense.

Data collected by Mote is used to designate protected areas for manatees, and signs are erected warning the public of the animals’ presence. Mote wouldn’t let us monitor boat speed limits in channels and lagoons thus marked. Perhaps they suspected we’d chuck cherry bombs at offending craft. Perhaps they were right.

Some volunteers, however, have monitored boat speeds, yielding the rather disturbing news that limits are exceeded most routinely in areas that have signs with pictures of manatees saying “Go slow.”

On a brighter note, public awareness is on the rise. More than $3 million has been raised for manatee conservation through the sale of customized car number plates in Florida, and nowadays few resident Floridians, at least, would ask, “A mana-what?”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.